Crisis Inaction: Wisconsin Republicans’ Lack of Urgency During the Pandemic Has Already Cost $25 Million. What Will It Cost Next?

They were warned that their lack of urgency could be costly. And yet they did nothing. Unemployed Wisconsinites paid the price. And this crisis of inaction is already repeating itself.

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

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks alongside members of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Photo via Wisconsin State Assembly.

Since the COVID-19 crisis hit, Wisconsin Republicans have delivered a number of high-profile crises of their own making — from forcing an in-person election during a pandemic to going to court to try to toss the public health order used to fight that pandemic. But all the while, there’s been another massive GOP-made crisis hiding in plain sight. 

That crisis is their shameful inaction. The ambivalence toward this crisis from legislative leadership has been flat-out unforgivable. It’s been a complete failure in leadership. The craven crew that spent more than a year crowing about being a “co-equal branch of government” has largely disappeared from efforts to provide any sort of meaningful relief to Wisconsinites throughout this months-long health and economic crisis. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and the rest of the Republican leadership in the Wisconsin State Legislature waited more than a month after Gov. Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12 to even sit in session to discuss any kind of state-led relief effort in the wake of the crisis. On April 15, they finally passed a barely adequate bill that somehow managed to piss off police, and firefighter organizations, and prompted the governor to say, “My pen has been waiting for weeks to sign legislation...This bill is finally a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done,” in his message to Wisconsinites upon signing the bill. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel later reported that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce — the same business lobbying group that’s currently aggressively pushing to reopen the state — snuck in a last-minute change that scaled back workers compensation for first responders on the front lines during the pandemic. 

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And news Thursday afternoon delivered perhaps the most damning indictment of Wisconsin Republicans’ failing crisis leadership yet. 

The extended delay to deliver a bill to the governor’s desk has proven to be extremely costly. Because of the egregious, indefensible inaction from Wisconsin Republicans, the state lost out on $25 million in federal funding to pay for unemployment benefits. 

According to the Journal Sentinel, “Federal legislation passed in late March known as the CARES Act included provisions that would reimburse states for additional unemployment benefits as long as the state did not have a one-week waiting period before the jobless could begin to receive the aid.”

As reported here at The Recombobulation Area, on the first day of mandatory dine-in closures, a group of more than 40 restaurant owners from Milwaukee sent a letter to Vos and Fitzgerald asking for emergency unemployment benefits. More than 50 additional Madison restaurants requested much the same in another letter that same week. 

And on March 17, Gov. Evers and the Department of Workforce Development, announced an Emergency Order waiving work search requirements during the pandemic. Evers also said this: "I am urging the Wisconsin State Legislature to quickly act and repeal the one week waiting period for UI benefits, so UI funds can quickly get to affected workers to support those households and our communities.”

It wasn’t until April 14 that the State Assembly first met to discuss their very first relief bill.

In that time, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites were denied financial relief because of the inaction of legislative Republicans. People working paycheck-to-paycheck, as so many in the restaurant and service industry do, had to shoulder that much more financial stress and uncertainty at a time of genuine crisis. That’s money that could have gone to families looking to pay their bills or pay their rent on time. To at-risk individuals needing to buy extra supplies to prepare for a long quarantine. To sick people paying their medical bills and filling prescriptions. Through their failure to act, Wisconsin Republicans took that money right out of their pockets. 

It was obvious from the early days of the crisis that this simple action -- waiving the waiting period for people placed on immediate furlough through no fault of their own -- could bring immediate help to the people who needed it most. Gov. Evers would have signed it the minute it hit his desk -- he’d first requested the legislature waive the waiting period long before the crisis even hit, and put an end to the one-week waiting period in the first piece of legislation he proposed on March 21. And Wisconsin Republicans running the Wisconsin State Legislature failed to deliver. For weeks. A crisis is a true test of leadership, and it’s hard to see how Vos, Fitzgerald and Co. have failed that test more miserably. 

It’s not as if they didn’t know. They were warned. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, along with Reps. Ron Kind, Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan, wrote a letter April 3 warning Vos and Fitzgerald that exactly this would happen. They said:

“On Friday, March 27, 2020, President Trump signed sweeping coronavirus aid legislation into law, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Among the law’s many provisions is a significant expansion of federal assistance for state unemployment insurance programs. Specifically, the legislation provides full federal reimbursement of workers’ first week of unemployment insurance benefits. The reimbursement is only available to states that do not require a waiting week. Because Wisconsin law requires claimants to wait a week before they can receive benefits, the growing number of jobless Wisconsinites are not eligible for this federal assistance…”

“The legislature’s plan to delay action on the one week waiting period and rely on retroactive pay—without any assurance from the Department of Labor that it is allowed—unnecessarily risks the financial security of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites suffering through this time of record-breaking unemployment.”

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Democrats in the state legislature, too, were pushing hard to waive the one-week waiting period.

In an April 1 letter to Vos and Fitzgerald, legislative Democrats said, “we are asking you to call the legislature into session immediately,” and specifically requested the suspension of the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance in their list of proposals. 

Also on April 1, the Department of Workforce Development had to clarify on social media that the benefits people were hoping to receive would not be available immediately unless the legislature acted. And the governor released his second legislative proposal for coronavirus relief, which included a repeal of the one-week waiting period.

There were more than enough warnings for the Wisconsin Republican Party that their inaction could be costly in a myriad of ways. And yet day after day, they did nothing. 

The only thing that shook them from their slumber was the opportunity to force people to choose between their health and their right to vote in an election that clearly should have been delayed.

Once they finally finished requiring people to make impossible decisions at the polls April 7, and took off their performative protective equipment, they waited another full week to do anything, and then they finally got ready to pass the long-overdue relief bill. Wisconsin then found itself as one of the last states in the nation to pass any legislation relating to the coronavirus, and would soon become the 49th state to get federal approval to bolster the state’s Medicaid program to fight the pandemic.

It was abundantly clear that legislative Republicans were not taking the crisis seriously, and their delay was growing more and more damaging by the day, and as I often did about matters of this unfathomable delay, I tweeted critically of their response.

Jim Steineke, the Assembly Majority Leader, responded with the following:

Now we know with absolute certainty that those extra weeks of time spent was not to ensure that the legislation was crafted “correctly” or with the benefits of the “CARES Act taken into consideration.” It was done recklessly, and with needless delay. It instead kept $25 million in financial relief out of the pockets of economically decimated Wisconsinites and made life-threatening situations more challenging for first responders fighting the pandemic on the front lines. With Republicans in the Trump era, it can be difficult to discern whether it’s the malevolence or the incompetence that’s leading to such cataclysmic decision-making. With Steineke, it’s both

But now, the inaction and ineptitude of Steineke, Vos, and Fitzgerald is already repeating itself.

On April 21, legislative Republicans filed their lawsuit challenging the governor’s public health order — an order that, it must be mentioned, is supported by an overwhelming number of health and medical organizations, as well as more than 200 businesses, city, county, and tribal government officials, medical professionals, and a wide range of organizations, including religious groups, educators and veterans, and, according to a recent poll, more than 90 percent of Wisconsinites.

In the now 17 days since that lawsuit was filed, legislative leadership could have crafted a reopening plan of their own or passed legislation to help people struggling during the shutdown or done any number of things to help the people of their state. And once again, they have failed.

Instead of creating a real plan and having the debate in the lawmaking branch of government — something legislative Democrats encouraged — they’ve pissed away more precious days that could’ve been used to genuinely help people. Instead, they’ve played this greased pig act where they commit to nothing and therefore never have to bear the consequences of having a concrete plan be criticized by fellow legislators or even meet the court of public opinion.

And over the course of those 17 days since the day that lawsuit was filed, 4,595 people contracted the deadly virus and 132 died from COVID-19. 

The level of ambivalence toward this crisis that legislative Republicans have demonstrated in the branch of government they control at this dire moment is flat-out unforgivable. It is a complete abdication of leadership.

It’s unclear why, exactly, Republicans in Wisconsin put up with their current leadership. It’s not as if they couldn’t simply choose someone other than Robin Vos or Scott Fitzgerald to lead their party. Not every Republican is this extreme.

Republican State Sen. Dan Feyen of Fond du Lac, for one, offered a perfectly reasonable reaction to Gov. Evers’ “Badger Bounce Back” plan. He basically says it's not perfect, but it sticks to federal guidelines, and we can work with it. Apparently, some Wisconsin Republicans do actually want to work together.

But obviously, they’re not the ones in charge. The one’s in charge have created crisis after crisis amidst this devastating pandemic, perhaps none greater than that of their weeks of inaction that’s now run up a tab on the backs of unemployed Wisconsinites to a sum of $25 million. Their stunning lack of urgency at this moment has already cost us more than we can comprehend.

If the conservative majority on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court rules the way we think they will, the next step will be a mandatory 10-day waiting period and a subsequent legislative process to confirm any public health order from Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. And again, the legislative leaders who will ultimately be in charge of that process currently have no plan of their own, other than to say they support a regional approach, but a deeply confusing one. It’s clear they don’t just want a seat at the table in any future decision-making process. They want the table to themselves. 

By the time that’s all settled, the governor and health secretary’s May 26 extension of the “Safer-At-Home” order won’t a distant date on the calendar, it will have all but arrived. Vos and Fitzgerald will have completed another month of inaction, obstruction, and politics-over-everything power consolidation. And Wisconsin will still be dealing with the health and economic effects of the coronavirus.

We desperately need real leadership in the legislature at this moment. This $25 million blunder should throw up the biggest of red flags. This is a brand new crisis, one of their own making, and we cannot allow this crisis of inaction repeat itself — again.

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