As 2020 comes to a close, we look to the start of a new year and a new legislative session for opportunities to make Wisconsin a safer and healthier place for all Wisconsinites to live. COVID-19 has continued to spread throughout our state at an alarming rate, causing our hospitals to once again be pushed to maximum capacity. Normally we would be visiting our friends and family for holiday celebrations, but instead we are staying home and planning virtual visits to protect those we love.
When this public health crisis began, most people would believe that the legislature would take immediate steps to provide the needed help for our citizens to deal with the pandemic. Much to all of our detriment, that is not what happened. For nearly nine months, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald refused to bring legislators together to address the ongoing pandemic. When we most needed to take action, they fought Governor Evers’ efforts to protect Wisconsin residents, going as far as to spend taxpayer dollars to challenge his efforts through the courts. We must pass legislation to address the dramatic spread of this virus in our communities and support our small businesses that have been hit the hardest economically.
Recently, Wisconsin Republicans and Governor Evers proposed starkly different COVID-19 response bills. Wisconsin Republicans refused to work with Governor Evers on the COVID-19 relief bill he proposed in November. Instead, Republicans proposed a package of bills that is cynical, political, and divisive. These proposals are unhelpful in addressing many of the most pressing challenges Wisconsin is facing regarding COVID-19 and are mostly focused on more power grabs from the Executive branch.
Our state is experiencing a record number of cases of COVID-19. However, Wisconsin Republicans have proposed that we limit the power of local governments to respond as they see fit to protect their communities. Our schools are facing unprecedented challenges, yet Republicans have not offered support. Instead, they proposed that we put financial restraints on school districts, restrict the ability of local school boards to respond to the challenges of COVID-19, and require teachers to teach in-person. This legislation also requires oversight of the vaccination plan by the Joint Committee on Finance. It’s unfathomable that anyone would want sixteen politicians in charge of the vaccination rather than those with a medical background.
By including provisions that would address the challenges many Wisconsinites are facing, the governor’s bill reflects a Wisconsin that takes the pandemic seriously and cares about the safety of its residents. His bill would improve access to healthcare, support small businesses, provide Wisconsinites with economic support, create flexibility for our schools, and fund COVID-19 resource needs.
To this point, funding for Wisconsin's COVID-19 resource needs and the "We're All In" Small Business Grants have come entirely from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which expires December 30, 2020. The governor’s COVID-19 relief bill includes a request for the state to maintain current levels of funding through the first quarter of 2021 for testing, contact tracing, and helping hospitals deal with critical staffing shortages. His bill also requests continued funding of the "We're All In" grants that have helped so many small businesses in need of assistance over the last several months. New funding has been requested for the distribution of and public awareness regarding the vaccine. Notably, the Republican bill package does not include this funding.
Governor Evers’ COVID-19 relief bill goes further to improve access to healthcare. His proposal requires insurers to cover all telehealth services that would be covered if provided in person. It also requires insurers to reimburse providers for out-of-network care that resulted from COVID-19, including telehealth services. The bill allows our dedicated critical workers to claim worker’s compensation benefits related to COVID-19 if they caught the virus while working. Additionally, pharmacists could extend most prescription refills by 30 days through the end of next year. Each of these provisions would make it easier for Wisconsinites to receive the care they need during this public health crisis.
Through no fault of their own, far too many Wisconsinites are currently experiencing financial insecurity or unemployment. Fortunately, the governor's bill prioritizes providing support to hardworking Wisconsinites struggling to make ends meet. Efforts include prohibiting evictions and foreclosures through 2021 and providing state and local governments with the power to waive interest, penalties, or payments on government loans and debt through the end of 2021. These measures would help many Wisconsinites until we can make both our communities and our economy healthier.
Finally, instead of making it more difficult for schools to respond to COVID-19, Governor Evers wants to give them more flexibility. At a time when many students are experiencing uncontrollable stressors both in their classes and at home, the governor has proposed waiving student assessments and report card requirements for the 2020-21 school year. School staff shortages are addressed in his proposal as well. This bill allows schools to rehire retired annuitants. It also allows for the reinstatement of licenses for teachers and school staff who retired within the last five years or are out of state.
A new legislative session is approaching, and we must act swiftly to address the COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin. Every moment we choose politics over people, we permit more lives to be lost to this deadly virus. 2021 must be a year where we choose compassion and hold each other accountable for doing what is right. We have a long road ahead, but it can and will be done.
I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday season.