MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly overwhelmingly approved a sweeping coronavirus relief bill Tuesday during a virtual session, the first time state lawmakers have gathered since the pandemic began in the United States.
The session took place in the Assembly chamber as usual, but due to concerns about spreading the virus, nearly two-thirds of the body’s 99 members attended via videoconference. The Senate was to hold a similar session today to send the bill on to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
It marked the first time in Wisconsin’s 172-year history that lawmakers convened a session with members participating remotely. Legislative rules require lawmakers to be present to debate and vote on bills, but a 2009 law allows for virtual sessions during disasters.
One section of the Assembly gallery was open to the public, with only 14 seats available and each spread out 6 feet apart. Public seating, also 6 feet apart, was available in the Capitol rotunda with speakers and TVs tuned to WisEye, the Legislature’s version of C-SPAN. Two large TV screens, tuned to Skype, were set up on the Assembly chamber floor. About 35 members sat in the chamber, all spaced several seats apart. Many rows were empty. Several pages wore face masks, as did Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz. He was the only Democrat on the floor.
The session got off to a slow start as Chief Clerk Pat Fuller tried to call the roll. Lawmakers joined from their kitchens, Capitol offices and 1分11选5平台 offices and struggled to unmute themselves and register their attendance before Fuller moved on to the next legislator. Some seemed amused at the setup, smiling and waving to the camera. Others initially appeared befuddled, apparently unable to hear or to figure out how to be heard. Roll call votes took minutes as Fuller asked each lawmaker individually for his or her vote. In a normal world voting is almost instantaneous as lawmakers signal their votes from their seats with the touch of a button.Moments before adjourning for a 10-minute receess, Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August warned lawmakers not to touch their laptops during the break because if they disconnected themselves they wouldn’t be able to log back in. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the few legislators on the floor, said setting up the virtual session was “extremely challenging” and he hoped the Assembly would never have to meet that way again.
The process smoothed out as the session progressed. The chamber ended up approving the bill, 97-2.
The legislation largely ensures that Wisconsin can capture the $2.3 billion coming to the state under the federal stimulus bill, including higher Medicaid payments and unemployment benefits. The Legislature’s budget committee would be allowed to allocate up to $75 million in funding during the public health emergency and up to 90 days after it ends.
The measure also would waive the state’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment for anyone who applies between March and Feb. 7, 2021; ban certain insurers from prohibiting coverage based on a COVID-19 diagnosis; ease licensing and credentialing for health care workers; reduce nurse training hour requirements; and render health providers immune from civil liability for services provided during the pandemic. Local municipalities also could choose to defer their residents’ property tax payments.