The 2021-22 legislative session is officially underway here in Wisconsin. Right out of the gate, both the Legislature and Governor Evers have focused on passing another COVID-19 response package. Back in April, the Legislature passed and the governor signed Wisconsin Act 185. Many of the provisions included in Act 185 have since expired.
Late last year, Gov. Evers and legislative leaders met to discuss plans for another COVID bill, and the governor released his proposal in late November. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) released his own plan a few weeks later, including many provisions from the governor’s plan plus several others. Then-incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) stated that the Senate would not reconvene until 2021, ending the possibility of any legislation passing at the end of the 2019-20 session.
Last week, Assembly Republicans quickly introduced and held a public hearing and floor vote on Assembly Bill 1 (AB 1), their comprehensive COVID-19 legislation. The new bill, while very similar to what Speaker Vos introduced in December of last year, added and dropped several provisions. Among the items removed from December’s proposal was a provision to give the Legislature authority over the state’s distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Assembly passed AB 1 on a party-line vote on Thursday, January 7.
This week, the state Senate held a public hearing and floor vote on AB 1. Majority Leader LeMahieu introduced his own plan, a compromise with Gov. Evers, as a substitute amendment to AB 1. This amendment replaced the language passed by the Assembly. The substitute amendment passed the Senate on a 29-2 vote and AB 1 was concurred in by the Senate on a voice vote on Tuesday, January 12.
Both the Assembly and Senate versions include COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, nonprofit organizations, governments, schools, and other entities and individuals. The Senate removed several Assembly provisions that would have prohibited employers, the Department of Health Services, or local health departments from requiring individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Current law allows DHS to order individuals to receive a vaccination during a public health emergency. Current law also allows an individual to refuse to be vaccinated for reasons of religion or conscience; such individuals may then be isolated or quarantined by DHS. The Senate also removed provisions to authorize dentists to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines and to create a COVID-19 vaccination coverage mandate prohibiting associated cost sharing.
Gov. Evers has publicly supported the Senate’s bill, which has been returned to the Assembly for further legislative action. Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) expressed disappointment in the compromise, saying it “falls short of the needs of Wisconsinites.” The Assembly is expected to meet on January 26 to review the Senate’s plan.
Two items in Gov. Evers’ original proposal that did not appear in either Republican plan were the creation of a telehealth coverage parity mandate and a COVID-19 treatment mandate.