State lawmakers urge unity to fight pandemic now that election is over


 The Wisconsin legislature has not passed a bill since April. It is typical for the legislative session to break after the spring ahead of an election like the one Wisconsin just had, but 2020 has been anything but typical.

Republican Rep. Pat Snyder, who represents the Wausau area, said when the governor was asked what legislation needed to be passed, he did not have an answer. He also noted the governor was able to allocate CARES Act dollars without the legislature.

“If there was something that we could do to add onto the money that the governor had and the money that the governor had total authorization to spend, we would have done it,” he stated.

Rep. Snyder said republicans also offered a temporary solution for people waiting on unemployment, but the governor did not take them up on that offer. He also said because his seat was up for re-election, he was limited in the amount of correspondence he could send out to constituents.

“I can’t send out any more than 49 individual messages from my office during this window, so I couldn’t reach out and talk to people with letters or even emails to be able to afford them that,” he explained.

However, he did go to some committee meetings and he has knocked on doors and talked with people about how the pandemic has affected them. His wife is also a nurse and he has spoken with health care workers to get their perspective and he said everyone needs to take personal responsibility to follow the COVID-19 safety precautions.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, the democratic representative for Stevens Point who was also up for re-election, said the election does not stop the legislature from putting together bills and passing them if needed. She believed more could have been done to help people in need over the summer, including holding public hearings in committees.

Both representatives, however, said while things could have gone differently over the summer, they are now looking forward.

“Now that the election is over, that people might not be thinking ‘oh this is only being used as an election tool,’ and that we might focus on the virus and the seriousness itself,” Rep. Snyder said.

“I feel like back in April, we were all united in a front against the virus and we need to remember what that felt like and get back to it,” Rep. Shankland urged, adding she thinks it is crucial that the legislature reconvenes before the next session in January when they will be busy laying out the next biennial budget.

Support for nursing homes to be able to have the resources to isolate COVID-19 positive patients rather than keeping them in hospitals was one Rep. Snyder offered as something that needs addressing. Rep. Shankland said adjustments need to be made in the unemployment process, especially for those awaiting adjudication, so benefits can be paid in a timely manner. Both urged small businesses continue to need support.

“I’ve been encouraged that this week Gov. Evers said he was working with others to not only talk about legislation but hopefully build consensus toward further pandemic relief legislation,” Rep. Shankland said.

Gov. Tony Evers in a media briefing Thursday said he will present his package of legislation to leaders in both parties and in both the Assembly and Senate to be worked on together. He said he plans to prioritize educating the public about the need to follow COVID-19 safety practices, which he has been doing for months already, noting, “at least last time I heard publicly, they’re (republicans) not in favor of mandating anything and that makes it more difficult, I would say.” He also mentioned that he plans to loop in public health officers in this process to provide them the tools necessary “where they may be able to play a more aggressive role in this.”

As reported yesterday, Wisconsin on the infectious spread and health front is doing very poorly and now seeing similar levels and nearing dangerous thresholds that New York saw in April despite having the ability to learn from other places that had outbreaks ahead of Wisconsin. However, one glimmer of hope is that business leaders see Wisconsin faring well economically overall for now.

Kurt Bauer, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce CEO said the industries that struggled in the beginning of the pandemic, like hospitality and tourism, are still having to get creative. However, manufacturing has helped to keep the state afloat as 20% of the state’s gross domestic product is in the manufacturing industry.

“Typically in a downturn economy, manufacturing gets hit pretty hard and then is usually slow to recover,” Bauer explained. “But because manufacturing was labeled an essential sector of the economy, and the workers and the supply chain were also labeled essential, manufacturing is doing very well. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Wisconsin is doing as well as it is on the unemployment rate.”

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate began the year at about 3%. The early stages of the pandemic’s impact on the state sent it to levels upwards of 14%. Currently, unemployment is at about 5%.

Dave Eckmann, president and CEO of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce echoed Bauer. He said fortunately, he had not seen many businesses close due to the pandemic in the area. They have made cuts and adjustments to survive, but closures have been few. While businesses may not have been open to the levels seen before the pandemic, Eckmann said retail and restaurants got some relief during the summer as people were able to easily have customers shop and dine outside.

“Now we’re seeing that the weather is turning,” Eckmann said. “Retail is going to have to go back to and is going back to what they had to do this spring and early summer to keep their businesses. So, curbside, online sales, delivery, anything that they can do to be creative to help meet the needs of their customers.”

He urged people to support local businesses through this time. He also said CARES Act funding directed at small businesses needs to be passed again before it runs out Dec. 31, noting that funding has kept the most impacted businesses afloat. The governor, legislators, and Bauer also stated the importance of Congress passing new CARES Act funding.

As for specific assistance to businesses and the economy, Bauer said funding targeting the most impacted businesses needs to continue, mentioning the paycheck protection program being helpful. He was not in favor of the additional $600 added to pandemic unemployment benefits because he said it disincentivizes people from working. He also said legislation related to COVID-19 liability protection needs to be addressed to protect all entities from frivolous lawsuits related to COVID-19 spread.

For now, they all beg people to follow the COVID-19 mitigation strategies: wear a mask, social distance, limit in-person interactions and gatherings, wash hands, and disinfect surfaces.

“It’s an economic imperative for us to get it under control," Bauer warned. "The economy cannot recover fully until we’re past COVID-19.”