MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers officially vetoed a COVID-19 relief bill Friday hours after it passed the Legislature saying that it limited the state's ability to respond to the pandemic.
"It is incumbent upon all of us, but especially on elected officials, to lead by example and to do everything we can to keep Wisconsinites healthy and safe," Evers wrote in a veto message to the Legislature. "I am vetoing [the bill] in its entirety because I object to the provisions in this bill that will make it more challenging to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in Wisconsin."
Evers had said that he would sign a compromise COVID-19 relief bill passed last month by the Senate. The Assembly, however, accused the Senate of "caving" to Evers and changed the bill by adding a set of changes Evers considered a deal breaker.
The changes passed by Assembly Republicans included a ban on employers from requiring their employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations. It also would have given the Legislature more oversight of future federal relief money and limited the governor to only be able to issue emergency orders for the purpose of securing federal relief dollars.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) previously touted the bipartisan support for the version of the bill that cleared the Senate last month.
On the Senate floor Friday, LeMahieu said the bill still was not perfect but called on Evers to sign it because it would extend provisions from the original COVID response bill that are about to expire.
"The governor needs to sign this bill; this bill is vitally important for the state of Wisconsin," LeMahieu said. "Do you know why the governor needs to sign this bill? There are many important extensions of Act 185, very many important extensions."
Democratic senators accused Assembly GOP leaders, specifically Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) of derailing the package by adding controversial items to the bill to which Senate Republicans and Evers had agreed.
"A lot of us on the Democratic side, Mr. President, voted in favor of this legislation based on the agreement with the governor," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point). "It bothers me because one person over in the state Assembly decided this was not a good bill."
Evers and Republicans in the Legislature have squabbled over the governor's repeated emergency declarations in response to the pandemic.
Conservatives say Evers can only declare one 60-day emergency in response to the pandemic. After that time, they contend, he needs to seek approval from the Legislature.
In a news release, Evers said Republicans had abandoned compromise legislation that had earlier passed the Wisconsin State Senate with bipartisan support. At the time, Evers indicated he would sign that version of the bill if it made it through the Assembly.
In response to the governor's veto, the Wisconsin Republican Party criticized Evers' veto as a blow to Wisconsinites who they say will lose out on millions of dollars of unemployment insurance.
"Taking $6.5M away from struggling Wisconsin families is putting politics before people," the Wisconsin GOP wrote.
It had been known for months that the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, a provision added by Republicans under the Walker administration, was set to go back into effect Sunday, February 7.
Waiving that period helped keep the state eligible for that federal relief. Evers' veto jeopardized whether the state would qualify for the relief. Extending the waiting period waiver once more has been part of the "compromise" bill from the beginning.
Vos (R-Rochester) and LeMahieu together released a statement on Evers' veto, commenting that it was a power grab on his part.
“It is sad that Gov. Evers is playing games at the expense of disadvantaged people by putting $50 million in food assistance benefits in jeopardy should the court eliminate the unlawful public health emergency," said Vos and Devin.'
Democrat Senator Jeff Smith said "My Democratic colleagues and I are listening. We won’t stop pushing for bold and urgent action during this unprecedented crisis," in a release after Evers' veto.
The legislation, known as AB 1, is the first bill the Legislature has sent to the governor’s desk in more than 290 days.
“Wisconsinites know a compromise when they see one, and this isn’t it,” Evers said. “We had a bill that Republicans and Democrats supported—and one that I said I would sign if it was sent to my desk—that passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote. Unfortunately, Republicans once again chose to put politics before people, abandoned that compromise, and passed a bill they knew I wouldn’t sign. I am calling on Republicans in the Legislature to stop playing politics and get to work sending me the compromise bill we worked on together.”
A case over whether Evers has the power to declare multiple emergencies in response to one crisis is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That case is likely to decide if the governor and Legislature will have to work together to respond to the pandemic.
To this point, the relationship between Evers, a Democrat, and Republicans in the state Senate and Assembly has been almost entirely absent. Leaders in the Legislature did begin negotiations with the governor last fall, but those broke down.
Below is the governor's complete veto message.
Capitol Bureau Chief A.J. Bayatpour contributed to this report.Signed-Veto-Letter