While in court to stop mask rules, Robin Vos calls to remove politics from COVID response
MADISON - After going to court to end Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' plans to navigate the pandemic, and after saying no new initiatives were needed, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is shifting his attitude toward the raging virus outbreak at a time when Democrats are flooding his reelection bid with ads against him.
Vos is calling for more testing, faster testing and is considering a second state relief package to help Wisconsin navigate the coronavirus pandemic as it overwhelms hospitals and kills dozens each day.
"First, we need to take politics out of it and work together to fight the virus," Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an emailed statement on Tuesday. "Obviously, what we’re doing now as a state isn’t working."
Vos on Tuesday presented for the first time in months specific measures he wants to see from federal and state officials and the Legislature.
Vos said Tuesday he wants to increase testing in the state, especially the number of rapid antigen testing — a recommendation from White House Coronavirus Task Force's Deborah Birx, who met with Vos and Senate President Roger Roth of Appleton at the state Capitol last week.
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"I agree with her recommendation that our state needs rigorous rapid testing to find the virus faster," Vos said.
Democrats are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to target Vos' seat over the GOP-controlled Legislature's legal challenges to Evers' health emergency orders and lack of legislative action since a relief bill was passed six months ago.
Vos' Democratic opponent, Joel Jacobsen, just bought $409,320 worth of TV time on four Milwaukee broadcast stations for the final week of the campaign. That buy comes on top of more than $300,000 in spending by Democratic and progressive groups against the speaker in recent weeks.
The ad buy was made the same day a new Marquette Law School poll showed approval for the GOP-controlled state Legislature had dropped by 10 percentage points between May and October, months during which lawmakers did not take any action against the pandemic.
Vos was the only Republican legislative leader to respond to questions from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday about what, if anything, each wanted to implement to slow the spread of coronavirus after more than 5,200 new cases and 64 deaths were reported in one day.
"If Congress fails to provide additional state assistance, I would be open to a second relief bill, which could include providing the $75 million that the Evers administration chose not to utilize from the first bill," Vos said.
GOP sued over stay-at-home order
Republican lawmakers in May sued Evers to eliminate the governor's stay-at-home order and are backing a lawsuit to end the current public health emergency, which allowed Evers to mandate face masks.
Evers weeks ago asked Republican lawmakers to provide him with ideas they could support to craft a new state plan to combat the pandemic but Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have so far declined to do so.
Britt Cudaback, Evers' spokeswoman, said Vos has not reached out to the governor about expanding testing, which his administration would oversee, or about what could be needed in a new relief package.
"It’s unfortunate that Republicans still don’t have a plan to respond to this pandemic even 196 days after they last passed a bill, but it’s great to hear they support the governor’s statewide testing efforts," Cudaback said.
The $75 million included in the April relief package expired in August because it was tied to a 90-day window after the governor's first public health emergency ended, according to Evers' office.
"Republicans literally tied these funds to a public health emergency that had already tolled more than 30 days by the time they passed their bill, shortening the time the funds were available," Cudaback said last week. "If Republicans were serious about wanting to ensure our state had the resources we need to respond to this pandemic, they wouldn’t have tied it to a specific public health emergency."
Evers could have spent the money by asking the Legislature's finance committee for approval. Cudaback said that didn't happen because lawmakers were asking Evers to spend federal funds before state funds and because the governor decided to put the money toward budget cuts.
GOP Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature's finance committee, said in a tweet Wednesday that the $75 million should have gone to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and local governments.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Republicans needed to withdraw from legal challenges to Evers’ orders and consistently show the public they support wearing masks and practicing social distancing. He said they should approve a new bill that would reauthorize provisions of the earlier COVID-19 legislation that have expired.
“Thematically, I think their brand is kind of damaged by the president and they’ve reinforced it by their own inaction at the state level,” Hintz said.
Hintz recently posted a message on Facebook urging people to wear masks and limit gatherings. “There is not a magic wand or government order that will improve things nearly as much as we can collectively as a community, region, state, nation, or world,” he wrote.
Republicans pounced on the comment, saying it was in line with ones they had been criticized for making, such as when state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said “there is nothing that government can do.”
In an interview, Hintz rejected that comparison, saying there would be less need for government orders if Republicans would take the virus more seriously and routinely wear masks.
Instead, he argued, they have been trying to “micromanage the administration” with legal action even though it is the job of the governor to spearhead the response to the outbreak.
“They’re still willing to play politics with Tony Evers at the expense of health and lives for the people of our state,” Hintz said.
Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who oversees COVID-19 diagnostic testing efforts for the Trump administration, said in a media briefing Wednesday that the department could supply Wisconsin with whatever it needed to expand testing.
The Trump administration is sending a total of 1.8 million rapid tests to Wisconsin, most of which have been delivered as of this week, according to Giroir.
Evers has been using about $2 billion in federal aid to deal with the coronavirus. He has used that money for a wide range of purposes, including establishing a field hospital, paying for protective equipment and tests, and providing financial assistance to renters and businesses.
Vos also said he agreed with Evers "that our success in fighting the virus rests on individual responsibility."
Evers also supports statewide limitations of public gatherings, capacity in bars and restaurants, and a gradual lifting of restrictions based on virus activity, but lawsuits have blocked those plans.
Vos has remained opposed to such restrictions. In a Facebook post on Friday, he wrote that Evers "wants to shut down the state, I oppose that."
"I encourage everyone to adhere to CDC guidelines: wear a mask, socially distance, frequently wash your hands and follow local restrictions," Vos said in his emailed statement.
Vos also is calling for the new measures after facing an outbreak within his caucus.
Roth, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna did not respond to the questions.
Daniel Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.