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Wisconsin Republicans differ on coronavirus relief response

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Assembly Republicans are backing a $100 million coronavirus relief package, about a fifth of what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wants to spend on fighting the virus that claimed a record-high number of lives on Tuesday.

But it doesn’t appear Senate Republicans are on board, let alone Evers. The Legislature has not met since April, even as virus numbers have spiked in Wisconsin.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said Tuesday that Senate Republicans had “serious concerns” about new spending and instead wanted to tap surplus from the state’s medical assistance programs. He didn’t say what he wanted to spend the money on, or how much.

“It’s unfortunate that Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on a plan for our state’s response to this pandemic,” said Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback.

Assembly Republicans announced their package of ideas after the second virtual meeting between Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and LeMahieu. It marks the first virus-related bills Republicans have proposed since the Legislature last met in April to pass a virus response plan.

Vos, in a statement, said Republicans were ready to take action this month on a bipartisan plan. LeMahieu has previously indicated that the Senate won’t return this year.

The wide-ranging proposals announced by Assembly Republicans include some crossover from what Evers wanted, but many ideas he is unlikely to support. He did not comment on their specific proposals, but Cudaback said Evers remains ready to work on a bipartisan plan that can pass.

“So many extremely politically divisive items at a time when we need the opposite,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz.

Assembly Republicans want to require the state Department of Health Services to create a plan for distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month. But Republicans also want to prohibit employers or government health officials from requiring people to get vaccinated.

The package would also offer weekly COVID-19 tests for home use, but prevent health officials from prohibiting public gatherings in churches. Teachers would also be required to work from school buildings, not at home, even when teaching remotely.

And parents of students who have had at least 50% virtual instruction since September would be paid $371 each by the school district. Nursing homes would be required to allow one “essential” family member to visit, under certain circumstances.

The state Department of Workforce Development would also be required to eliminate the backlog of unemployment insurance claims.

Wisconsin reported 107 new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, which marked a single-day high for the state and raised its total since the pandemic started to 3,420.

The seven-day average of new daily positive cases, while still four times higher than three months ago, is trending downward. The seven-day average of new cases on Tuesday was 3,905, continuing a decline that began two weeks ago.

“I am hopeful that there is something real in that decline,” said state health secretary Andrea Palm.

There were 1,827 people hospitalized because of the coronavirus as of Tuesday, which was down from the state’s high seen in mid-November.

Also on Tuesday, the state Department of Corrections said it was closing part of the maximum security Waupun Correctional Institution and transferring inmates to other facilities because of staffing shortfalls that come amid the pandemic.

According to the state Department of Corrections, as of Tuesday there were 1,107 active cases among inmates. Eleven inmates have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

There were 190 active cases among corrections staff as of Tuesday, further straining staffing. Since the start of the pandemic, 119 Waupun staff have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19, according to the department.

Staffing shortages at the Waupun prison didn’t happen “overnight,” Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said when announcing the partial closure. The transferring of 220 inmates will reduce the prison’s overall population by 20% and help address vacancies, prison officials said.

Department spokesman John Beard said the decision to close a cell hall at Waupun was not related to the pandemic.

The virus outbreak continues to affect the state in unexpected ways. Auto fatalities are up in Wisconsin despite there being fewer people on the road due to the pandemic, a report released Tuesday by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found.

The report examined state crash data from March 14 through July 31.

While all crashes and injuries were down compared with the same period in 2019, crashes in which someone was killed and the number of crash-related fatalities were up. Fatal crashes increased by more than 17% and total crash fatalities grew by 20%, the report found.

At the same time, alcohol-involved crashes were up 50%, drug-involved crashes grew by 46% and speeding-involved crashes were up by 52%, the report said.

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