Legislative Inaction Nears 100 Days, Republicans' Performative Outrage, WMC Blocks COVID Outbreak Information, Glenn Grothman is an Embarrassment

It's been quite a week. Let's recombobulate.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

The Wisconsin State Capitol, where nothing is happening (even virtually). Photo by MuZemike - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another week of inaction from the party that sued for a seat at the table

How exactly do you cover a group of people who aren’t doing anything? 

The Republican-led Wisconsin State Legislature has now gone three full months, nearly 100 days, without passing a single bill, amid a deadly, worsening pandemic, a devastated economy, a massive unemployment crisis, a health coverage crisis, and the largest protest movement in U.S. history. 

To put that in perspective of just how long it’s been, the last time they passed a bill, ESPN’s “The Last Dance” had not yet aired its first episode. It’s been a long, long time since Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Republican leadership have done a thing in the branch of government they pilot. They aren’t even holding public hearings about any of the issues people are facing right now. 

Calls for action are an ever-present part of the daily political dialogue, but this inaction rarely seems to be a big story. But unless someone speaks out about that inaction -- a politician from the other party, a notable leader, or, the media’s favorite: a politician from the same party -- there really isn’t a news story in continued inaction. Even if that inaction is a despicable dereliction of duty at a time of actual life-threatening crisis, and is, on its own, the continued biggest story in state politics, there’s not a fresh story to write or broadcast each day.

Legislative Democrats will propose worthy bills like the Healthcare Heroes Act (which would provide hazard pay, paid sick leave, state-funded COVID-19 testing and treatment, all done without any new taxes by taking the long-overdue step of accepting Medicaid expansion), or the governor and his administration will propose a set of law enforcement reform bills, and the Republicans running things won’t even think to consider it, or offer an alternative. They just release another dismissive reaction statement (if they say anything at all), and wait for people to stop asking them about it so they can keep on doing nothing. 

Maybe this needs to be a front-page, opens-the-show type of story at some point. Next week, we’ll reach 100 days of inaction by the Republican leadership in the Wisconsin State Legislature -- a governing body with an enormous, outsized level of control at this very moment after cutting the governor out of much of the coronavirus response process -- and maybe that’s the time for them to be reminded of the magnitude of their absence at this most crucial of moments. Because right now, lives are quite literally at stake.

Wisconsin Republicans’ actions this week show their outrage over unemployment insurance is all for show

As the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic continues well into the summer, some people have been waiting months to receive the benefits they are owed.

Despite their months of inaction in the Legislature, legislative Republicans have been quite critical of the Evers’ administration and the Department of Workforce Development's ability to manage unemployment insurance payments. 

That criticism is not entirely unwarranted, but after this week, it’s hard to see Republican criticism as anything other than largely performative. 

An estimated 141,000 people have not yet received benefits, and according to a report from the Washington Post, the average time from application to payment in Wisconsin is 21 days. That report also details the many frustrating problems with unemployment benefit distribution in state after state, and showed research from the Century Foundation that revealed that by the end of May, only 57 percent of claims had been paid nationwide. It’s clearly not a problem isolated to Wisconsin. There really isn’t a shining example of a state that’s doing this right. 

The states having the most difficulty at the moment, though, are ones with the policies making it difficult to access this essential safety net benefit. 

“States that have been the most restrictive in moving people off unemployment insurance — those states have had the hardest time processing claims now,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Post

That group of states certainly includes Wisconsin. 

An in-depth report on unemployment in Wisconsin from WPR and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism provides the best look yet on how the state is failing to deliver on unemployment insurance in this moment of crisis. According to the report:

“Beginning in 2011, the Legislature under then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, enacted a series of laws that: created a one-week waiting period for benefits (temporarily waived during the pandemic), increased work search requirements for recipients, disqualified people on federal disability from accessing unemployment compensation and increased criminal penalties for making false statements or representations on applications. 

Additionally, Walker signed a lame-duck law just before Evers took office that restricts the governor’s ability to waive certain requirements for state-federal benefits programs including unemployment insurance. And Wisconsin’s $370 a week maximum benefit is among the most miserly in the United States, ranking 40th among the states and the District of Columbia.” 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week that because a 2013 law passed by Republican lawmakers, people receiving benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are barred from receiving new federal unemployment benefits. Wisconsin is one of only two U.S. states denying people with disabilities this benefit through state law. The other, North Carolina, changed the rules through executive order in March to allow for benefits to be extended to people with disabilities during the pandemic. 

WKOW’s A.J. Bayatpour also reported this week that people working part-time jobs are also being denied unemployment insurance benefits because of Republican-passed legislation. 

Legislative Democrats this week introduced a package of bills crafted to address many of the problems with the unemployment insurance system, including reversing the state law on SSDI, relaxing work search and occupational training requirements, reduces administrative barriers to accessing benefits, temporarily suspends wage thresholds, and permanently eliminates the one-week waiting period. 

So naturally, instead of responding to act upon these legitimate proposals, or promising to hold public hearings on the topic, or even seeing them as a starting point toward eventual compromise, Republicans scoffed. 

“The tired proposals trotted out today would only serve to expand eligibility to an already strained system and fuel the flames of the problem at hand,” said Rep. Steineke

Is it a bad thing to “expand eligibility” to suffering Wisconsinites during a pandemic? Is it a bad thing to provide financial assistance to people with disabilities whose lives are at greater risk from the coronavirus? Is it a bad thing to remove unnecessary barriers to access to the safety net?

This dismissive attitude only further serves as proof that this Republican outrage over the ability to access unemployment benefits is nothing more than political posturing. If they actually wanted to address the issue, they could call in an extraordinary session of the Wisconsin State Legislature and put a bill on Gov. Tony Evers’ desk tomorrow. But they aren’t actually interested in fixing any of the problems. They are just trying to pass the blame and continue their pattern of obstruction and inaction that has plagued the state at this moment of genuine crisis. 

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Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, at it again

The state’s largest business lobbying group has been successful in an effort to shield the public from knowing about which Wisconsin companies are putting people at risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.

In a very public effort, the group, along with nearly 80 other business trade associations and local chambers of commerce (including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) made it clear that they had no interest in letting the public know which businesses had employees who tested positive for COVID-19.

This is not what’s happening in other states. In Colorado, for example, the state is providing regular information on where coronavirus outbreaks are taking place, including listing individual businesses. 

As UpNorthNews details in a must-read report, 1,035 facilities and businesses have had a coronavirus outbreak in Wisconsin, but the public does not know about 902 of them. Knowledge of outbreaks in places like Briggs & Stratton, where an employee died of coronavirus after collapsing on the job, or at the Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield meat processing facility in Cudahy have required the work of advocates and journalists to reveal the extent of these dangerous outbreaks. 

Over the last week in Milwaukee, dozens of local bars and restaurants have announced that they are closing once again, oftentimes doing so after an employee or guests tests positive for COVID-19.

This transparency is worthy of praise. These restaurants -- which should have been bailed out months ago! -- are doing the right thing in an impossible situation. It’s devastating to see them forced to close their doors once again because of the incompetence and malevolence of elected officials. 

Covid cases are unmistakably spiking in Wisconsin again. The number of positive cases in the state right now is staggering. Already, more people have tested positive for coronavirus in July (11,848) than in any other month (and it’s not because of more testing). 

Would knowledge of the businesses where outbreaks are occurring change the calculus for Wisconsin? Could it help? Because with the governor and health department’s ability to act hamstrung by the Legislature and the State Supreme Court, we need any help we can get right now. 


Glenn Grothman is an embarrassment

I’m going to have to write more about the representative from Wisconsin’s 6th District at some point, but Glenn Grothman, what an embarrassment for our state. At the Wisconsin Republican Party’s (in-person, indoors, mask-free pandemic-denying) convention last Saturday, the Republican congressman went viral when he exploded into a coughing fit while saying the president’s name during his opening remarks.

A campaign spokesman said the congressman just had a “dry throat and a need for a drink of water.” As we all know, a dry cough is a sure sign that you’re totally fine these days. 

He should get tested for coronavirus. 

Black Lives Matter marches continue

Day 50 in Milwaukee. Keep at it. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record.

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