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Uncertainty remains after Wisconsin’s imperfect COVID-19 relief legislation signed into law

Governor Tony Evers signed legislation on April 15, just hours after it was passed by the State Senate, to address the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Wisconsin, despite serious concerns that the measure omitted critical needs and fell short in providing enough assistance.

The new law removes a weeklong waiting period for unemployment insurance in Wisconsin, and requires health insurers to cover COVID-19 testing. It also prevents insurance companies from discriminating against people who have or previously suffered from the coronavirus. Enacting the law clears the way for Wisconsin to qualify for additional federal Medicaid funding that was made possible by the $2 trillion U.S. CARES Act passed Congress last month.

“My pen has been waiting for weeks to sign legislation that guarantees Wisconsin will capture our fair share of federal dollars under the CARES Act and ensures workers experiencing unemployment and underemployment won’t be forced to wait an extra week for needed benefits to kick in. This bill is finally a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done,” said Governor Evers. “Although I remain concerned about what is missing from this legislation I have called for this bill to be sent over for my signature as soon as possible. The bill I will sign falls short of what is needed to address the magnitude and gravity of what our state is facing, but I am not willing to delay our state’s response to this crisis.”

Governor Evers had previously called for legislation that would empower his administration to spend whatever was necessary to address the COVID-19 pandemic. He also called on legislators to extend his emergency powers indefinitely. The Republican majority rejected the governor’s plans, but also backed away from their own proposal that would have given the Legislature’s budget committee unilateral control over spending cuts that would likely be necessary because of a downturn in the state’s economy.

“This bill does not provide hazard pay or workers compensation for all frontline and critical workers like first responders, childcare providers, and healthcare workers who are risking their lives going to work every day. This bill lacks meaningful support for small businesses and farmers who are struggling to make ends meet and includes no additional investments in our businesses or farmers through WEDC’s successful 20/20 program,” added Governor Evers. “Our state is facing significant challenges as we respond to and prevent the spread of COVID19. The bottom line is that we have to do everything we can to keep our families, our neighbors, and our communities safe while also looking towards our economic recovery. People across our state are hurting. We have asked Wisconsinites to make sacrifices so we can keep them safe, and the Legislature needs to do their part.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul weighed in on consumer protection issues related to the pandemic. He said the state Department of Justice had put out guidance on consumer scams that people should be aware of, including people selling fake cures for COVID-19, price gouging of critical supplies, and fraudulent charities. He also found provisions in the new law lacking.

“The men and women on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus make a remarkable sacrifice every day they go to work: they put their own health, and in many cases the health of their family members, at risk,” said Attorney General Kaul. “We should be doing more to support these essential workers than simply ensuring that they’re able to receive worker’s compensation benefits if they contract COVID-19. But, because of an amendment that gutted a protection for first responders that originally had been included in the coronavirus bill, the legislation that passed the state legislature doesn’t even do that.”

Lawmakers would be allowed to allocate up to $75 million in funding. The legislation passed on a 31-0 vote in the Senate and a 97-2 vote in the Assembly. Democratic Representatives Marisabel Cabrera and Jonathan Brostoff from Milwaukee voted against the proposal on April 14, because they said it did not go far enough to address the crisis. Other Democrats expressed outrage over the handling of Senate session on April 15.

“One of the core responsibilities of government is to keep people safe, and to prevent people from getting sick and dying. Our state government has a role to play in helping people manage and navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This unprecedented public health and economic crisis has caused harm to so many families and businesses across Wisconsin,” said Representative Gordon Hintz, Assembly Democratic Leader in a statement. “While too often our politics are broken and dysfunctional, more than ever people are looking for leadership and not politics. In this moment, we must assess and act upon what government can do right now to best support the public. The bill we passed was a positive first step. Eliminating the one week waiting period for Unemployment Insurance and securing additional federal resources will help those struggling immediately. This situation is rapidly evolving, and we must be responsive to the needs of our state and the many unforeseen challenges in the days ahead.”

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Office of Governor Tony Evers

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following months, we have published more than 375 articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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