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Capital City Sunday: COVID-19 cases rising again, lawmakers move forward with ARPA spending that might not be allowed

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MADISON (WKOW) -- During the same week all Wisconsin adults became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the state recorded its most new cases in nearly two months.

The seven-day average of new cases per day has topped 700 for the first time since mid-February. The state had gone nearly two months without recording 1,000 new cases in a single day until Thursday.

Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said the state and its residents needed to act with urgency with regard to getting vaccinated and further limiting the opportunities for COVID-19 to spread within communities.

"We are in a race right now between the vaccine administration and the spread of the virus in general and especially the new variants," Timberlake said.

The state's top health official added she had concerns people were starting to let their guards down early. On March 31, the state Supreme Court struck down the statewide mask order, a restriction public health and medical entities had supported throughout the state.

"We've all been living with COVID for so long, it can be easy to become complacent," Timberlake said. "And just sort of forget that case counts really are important to pay attention to."

The rise in cases came during the same week Wisconsin also surpassed 2,000,000 residents who've received at least one dose of the vaccine.

About 36 percent of the state's adult population is now at least partially vaccinated; that includes about 78 percent of those 65 and older.

Timberlake repeated the messaging from other DHS officials in recent weeks; Wisconsin should reach herd immunity once 80 percent of its adults are fully vaccinated. She acknowledged there are concerns about vaccine hesitancy impeding the state's ability to hit that target.

"I think sometimes people look at the speed at which the vaccines were developed and they wonder what that means about safety and efficacy," Timberlake said. "What I can tell you is the science behind the vaccines is sound; every safety precaution that needed to be taken was taken."

Timberlake also acknowledged the ongoing racial disparities among which Wisconsinites are getting vaccinated. While about one-third of the state's White residents have at least one shot, less than 20 percent of the state's Hispanic adults and less than 15 percent of its Black adults are partially vaccinated.

Timberlake cited the $6 million grants to about 100 community organizations as a DHS-led effort to help get more information to underserved parts of the state.

"All of those things are gonna help us make sure that every single person who is eligible and wishes to get vaccinated can get vaccinated," she said.

GOP Pushes Forward on Stimulus Bills

Republicans legislators on the state's budget-writing committee said this week they intend to proceed with bills that would direct how Wisconsin spends the $3.2 billion coming via the American Rescue Plan Act.

A set of 11 GOP-authored bills would allocate about $2.7 billion of the money; the most controversial of which is a proposal to send out $1 billion worth of direct checks to property owners across the state.

The bills also include $500 million on broadband expansion; Governor Tony Evers has proposed using $200 million of the stimulus money on broadband while spending an additional $200 million from the state budget on the initiative.

Another bill would put $308 million into county and municipal coffers for local bridge and highway projects.

The Republican plan also seeks to pay down debt with $250 million of the money, give small businesses $200 million in relief, and give nursing homes $150 million.

The GOP plan was already appearing destined for nowhere as governor's office indicated Evers would veto the bill, referring questions about the GOP plan to a previous bill Evers vetoed that would've given lawmakers control over stimulus money.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau then dealt the Republican plan another blow when its analysis found some of its biggest spending items, including the checks for property owners and the local transportation spending, were likely not allowed under the American Rescue Plan Act.

"I do believe that this was not a good use of our time," said Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine).

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), who serves with Neubauer on the Joint Finance Committee, said Republicans can be flexible in their stimulus spending plans based on the fiscal bureau's feedback but insist they have a say in how the state spends $3.2 billion that is good through 2024.

"We're looking at three-plus years of spending in the middle of a $91 billion biennial budget," Loudenbeck said. "I think it's incredibly appropriate and needed for the legislature to be part of those conversations."

FoodShare Fiasco

Democrats said GOP leaders should instead focus on drafting a bill to declare an emergency in Wisconsin due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The previous emergency order was struck down on March 31 by the state supreme court; that decision cost Wisconsin $50 million in additional food relief for more than 250,000 households.

"I think we should be focusing on the things we do have control over," Neubauer said. "The budget that's in front of us, the need to support our families to get food on the table."

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee said Evers should approach them with a plan for mutually agreed upon emergency language since he previously vetoed a bill that would've only let him declare an emergency for the purpose of securing federal relief.

"It's a priority if he wants to talk to us about it and make it a priority," Loudenbeck said. "I think we're happy to have the conversation but he already rejected our offer to do that before."

Evers said at the time of the veto he rejected the bill because it would've ended the statewide mask order, something the SCOWIS has since ended up doing.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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