Budget and Taxes

WI Approves COVID-19 Relief: Just two days before the deadline to take advantage of hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus aid, Wisconsin lawmakers passed and Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed a COVID-19 relief package. Among other things the legislation suspends a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, allows the state to obtain an additional $150 million for healthcare programs for each fiscal quarter that the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, protects healthcare providers from liability and requires health insurers to cover the full cost of COVID testing, as well as prohibits them from charging consumers more for out-of-network COVID treatment.

The package drew bipartisan support - the vote was 97-2 in the Assembly 97-2 and 31-0 in the Senate – despite a last-minute amendment backed by the GOP majority scaling back workers’ compensation protections for first responders infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As amended, the bill will provide workers’ compensation benefits only to police officers, firefighters and healthcare workers who treat COVID patients and only those who can show they were exposed to the virus while on the job, which drew criticism from union officials.

“The law will presume that a first responder’s COVID-19 injuries are caused by their employment as long as they can prove it,” tweeted Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. “Thanks for nothing.”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D) also said the Legislature should have done more, such as provide assistance for hospitals and closed businesses.

“Many in the majority party continue to downplay the significance of this crisis,” she said. “It is disappointing that the plan before us today is limited in scope.”

Republicans said the workers’ compensation change reduced costs to taxpayers already struggling because of COVID-related business closures.

“There are families out there paying taxes but have already lost jobs or watching a lifetime of building a business get destroyed in just weeks. A little perspective please!” tweeted Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Sen. Steve Nass (R).

And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said lawmakers may very well do more on the issue.

“This bill isn’t perfect and it might be the first bill of a number that we are going to have to pass in the Legislature,” he said. “But it is timely and I think it’s been well thought out, and I think it will help.” (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

Budgets in Brief:

PA Legislature Passes Bill to Reopen COVID-Shuttered Businesses: Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled General Assembly passed legislation that will enable more businesses to qualify as essential during the COVID-19 pandemic and allow other businesses that take certain safety precautions to reopen. But Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said he would veto the bill, and Republicans don’t have the votes needed for an override. (SPOTLIGHTPA.ORG)

Demand for Emergency Small Business Loans Far Exceeds $50M Available: Florida has given away the entire $50 million it set aside for an emergency loan program to help small businesses in the state get through the coronavirus pandemic. While over 1,000 businesses were granted the one-year, $50,000 interest-free loans, about 37,000 others that applied for the loans missed out. (MIAMI HERALD)

COVID Won’t Rush AL to Expand Medicaid: Despite growing pressure to expand Medicaid in Alabama, with hospitals and uninsured residents struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said that can’t be done until there’s a plan for how to cover the state’s share of that expansion. “It would be irresponsible to think about expanding Medicaid just for the sake of expanding Medicaid without having a complete and honest discussion about the source of stable funding to pay the match,” she said. (AL.COM)

IN Likely to Run Out of Unemployment Money: Experts say it is likely that Indiana will use up all of the $895 million it has reserved to cover unemployment benefits, forcing it to take out Title XII loans from the federal government as it and other states did during the Great Recession. Indiana residents have been filing unemployment claims at more that twice the rate they did during the 2007-2009 economic downturn. (INDIANAPOLIS STAR)

AK Senate Leaders Question Gov’s Budget Change: Alaska Senate President Cathy Giessel (R) and Senate Finance Committee co-chair Natasha von Imhof (R) have sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department questioning the legality of fellow Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to replace the state spending he vetoed with some of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus aid approved for the state. Earlier this month Dunleavy vetoed about $261 million from a pair of budget bills. (ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS)

--Compiled by KOREY CLARK

Politics and Leadership

COVID-19 Pandemic Could Give Democratic Candidates Boost in TX: A few months ago Republican political candidates in Texas were touting the robust economy and small government the state had enjoyed under their party’s watch. But with oil prices plummeting, unemployment skyrocketing and a GOP-controlled White House and U.S. Senate signing off on trillions of dollars in federal spending in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, that familiar campaign messaging is no longer a viable option.

“This pandemic has put Republicans in a tough position,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist. “You are having to swallow bitter pills.”

According to some local politicians and strategists, the economic fallout from the pandemic could accelerate a shift away from the Republican Party among the state’s growing population of suburban voters, evidenced by Republicans’ loss of 14 seats in the state’s GOP-led House and Senate, along with two congressional districts, to Democrats in 2018.

The pandemic may not swing the top contests in the state this year in the Democrats’ direction, but it could give them a boost in down-ticket races, including seven U.S. House races in the suburbs of the state’s biggest cities. It also gives them an outside chance of taking control of the House, where they would have to flip nine seats. (POLITICO)

Politics in Brief

VA House to Consider Voting Remotely: When Virginia lawmakers return to Richmond on April 22 to review Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) proposed amendments to the state budget, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) said she intends to ask members of her chamber to vote on whether to allow remote voting for the veto session and any special sessions this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The chamber has never taken such action before in its 400-year history. (RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH)

WI Voters Sue State Over Election: A group of Wisconsin voters have filed a federal class-action lawsuit claiming they were disenfranchised by last-minute actions taken by lawmakers that prevented them from being able to cast a ballot in the state’s April 7 election. The claimants are seeking a partial or full re-vote. (WISCONSIN PUBLIC RADIO)

Surge of Absentee Ballot Applications for PA Primary: Pennsylvania election officials have processed over 280,000 applications for mail-in and absentee ballots for the state’s primary election, which is still over a month away, having been moved from April 28 to June 2 because of the coronavirus outbreak. Only about 84,000 voters cast absentee ballots in 2016, before the state allowed mail-in voting. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NV Dems Threaten Lawsuit Over State’s Planned All-Mail Primary: The Democratic Party of Nevada is threatening legal action unless the state agrees to make changes to its plan for an all-mail primary election in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the party is concerned the state’s intention to limit in-person voting to one location in each county poses “certain risks and hardships” to voters unaccustomed to casting their ballots by mail. (NEVADA INDEPENDENT [LAS VEGAS])

-- Compiled by KOREY CLARK


States Forming COVID-19 Economic Pacts: Governors on each coast and in the Midwest announced last week they were forming regional coalitions to work together on how to eventually lift stay-at-home orders aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The East Coast pact consists of the governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, while the West Coast group includes governors from California, Washington and Oregon. The Midwest pact will include the governors of Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky.

The participants said they will all continue to work on their own state-specific needs, but are looking to collaborate wherever possible with neighboring states to ensure they do not create more problems in the process.

“I would love to do everything in unison. That’s the optimum. If unison isn’t possible because we’re different and we have different needs, fine,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said in announcing the East Coast pact. “Let’s at least know what each other is doing so we’re not counterproductive with each other.”

His words were echoed by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, the only Republican governor in the East Coast pact.

“For Massachusetts to forge ahead here without presuming that we’re going to have conversations with states that are around us about what they’re up to and what we’re up to so that we make sure nobody does anything that creates harm unwittingly for somebody else would just be a bad idea,” Baker told reporters on Tuesday.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats, made a similar appeal in announcing the West Coast pact.  

“COVID-19 doesn’t follow state or national boundaries,” they said in a written statement. “It will take every level of government, working together, and a full picture of what’s happening on the ground.”

All of the coordination agreements emphasized four basic principles: sustained control of new infection and hospitalization rates, enhanced testing and tracing capabilities, adequate health care capacity to respond to a resurgence and best workplace social distancing techniques.

Newsom said the governors would also focus on sharing best practices, all of which would be guided by science, “not political pressure.”

That pressure had been growing for days before the pacts were announced, primarily from the White House, where President Trump has been pushing hard to send Americans back to work as soon as possible. He also initially insisted he would be the one to make the decision of when that would happen, not governors. He later backed off from that stance in the face of wide bipartisan agreement that he had no legal authority to override gubernatorial orders that closed businesses deemed non-essential.

Trump instead unveiled new guidelines last Thursday that left those decisions up to governors on a statewide or county by county level. (WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK TIMES, ALBANY TIMES-UNION, LOS ANGELES TIMES, CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, NEW YORK GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, CNN, BOSTON GLOBE)

Northam Signs Number of VA Employment Bills: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed nearly two dozen employment-related measures last week, along with proposing to delay an impending hike in the Old Dominion minimum wage.

Several of the measures he signed focused on worker misclassification, including HB 1407 and SB 744, which together authorize state tax officials to “oversee investigations into suspected cases of worker misclassification and levy penalties as appropriate.” He also signed HB 984 and SB 894, which collectively create a private cause of action for a misclassified worker to bring civil action for damages against his or her employer. Other signed bills protect contract workers from retaliation for reporting misclassification and creates a process for punishing contractors who violate employee classification laws.

The governor also signed HB 123, which allows workers to sue over wage theft, and SB 838, which gives workers the right to sue for unpaid wages.

Northam also proposed delaying the implementation of the new minimum wage – set to rise to $9.50 on Jan. 1 2021 – by four months, to May 1, 2021. He also proposed to delay by one year an impending ban on electronic skill games, with profits from those games taxed at 35 percent. He said this would raise approximately $150 million in new revenues, which would go to a special fund aimed at mitigating some of the costs of dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers will consider those proposals when they return for a 65-day session that begins on April 22. (VIRGINIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, NBC NEWS, RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH) 

Governors in Brief:

Newsom Launches $125 million CA Aid Plan for Unauthorized Immigrants: Noting that undocumented immigrants make up as much as 10 percent of the state workforce, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced the creation of a $125 million fund to provide individual assistance of $500 and household assistance up to $1,000. Newsom said the state would provide $75 million to the fund, with the other $50 million coming from private donations. (CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE)

Govs Order the Wearing of Masks in Public: Several governors issued orders last week requiring people to wear masks or face coverings in public:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered all Empire State residents to wear a face mask when in places where social distancing is not possible. (ALBANY TIMES-UNION)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued a slightly less comprehensive order that directs people to wear a mask when inside retail establishments or when riding any form of public transportation in the state. (BALTIMORE SUN)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) ordered all Garden State grocery workers and customers to wear masks when in grocery outlets, and for those stores to limit their customers to no more than 50 percent of capacity at any one time. (NJ.COM)

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) ordered workers and customers at all customer-facing and office-based businesses, including non-profits and manufacturers, to wear cloth face coverings while at work. (WJAR [PROVIDENCE])

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he is not ready yet to order all residents to wear masks in public, but is likely to order food service workers to do so. (ADVOCATE [BATON ROUGE])

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) ordered all hotel workers, guests and visitors; individuals using taxis, ride shares and private transportation providers; and workers and customers of food sellers to wear masks.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) ordered all grocery workers and customers to wear masks. (PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE)

Lee Calls for TN Reboot: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) appointed a new Economic Recovery Group tasked with developing strategies to “reboot” the Volunteer State economy once it is safe for businesses to re-open. Lee said the key detail will be figuring out how to open businesses while maintaining social distancing guidelines of at last six feet between workers and customers. (TENNESSEAN [NASHVILLE])

OH Gov Asks Hospitals for Elective Surgeries Plan: Saying he now feels “much better” about their ability to manage their patient load, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said on Wednesday he has asked Buckeye State hospitals to develop a plan to resume elective surgeries and other procedures delayed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER)

MN Gov Takes Pay Cut: Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed Executive Order 20-36, which implements salary cuts for the governor, his chief of staff and cabinet members. The order comes on the heels of his direction to freeze hiring for executive branch positions, a measure that doesn't require an executive order. (KSTP [MINNEAPOLIS])

-- Compiled by RICH EHISEN

Hot Issues

Business: MICHIGAN Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) issues Executive Order 2020-46, which directs the state’s Liquor Control Commission to buy unused liquor remaining in inventory from bars and restaurants that was purchased prior to March 16 for their full purchase price (WWMT [KALAMAZOO]). NEW JERSEY Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signs SB 2374, which expands protections under the state’s Family Leave Act to allow employees forced to take time off to care for a family member during the COVID-19 outbreak with up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave in a 24-month period without losing their jobs (INSIDER NJ).

Education: VIRGINIA Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signs HB 510, legislation that bars donations to Old Dominion universities from being anonymous when they have academic strings attached (VIRGINIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE).

Energy: VIRGINIA Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signs HB 1526, legislation that requires Dominion Energy Virginia to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, Appalachian Power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050 and nearly all coal-fired plants to close by the end of 2024 (VIRGINIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE).

Health & Science: The MINNESOTA House and Senate endorse HB 3100, which would provide two benefits for low-income insulin-dependent diabetics in the Gopher State. One is the ability for those who don’t have sufficient prescription drug coverage to access an emergency 30-day supply for a $35 copayment. The other is the provision of ongoing supplies for residents whose family income is less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level and who have a similar lack of drug coverage. Copays would be $50 for a 90-day supply. The measure moves to Gov. Tim Walz (D) for consideration (MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE). NEW JERSEY health officials bar 123 Garden State nursing homes from taking new residents because those nursing homes lack the ability to isolate patients with COVID-19. At least 342 of the state’s 375 long-term care facilities have at least one patient with the virus (NJ.COM). In the 11th amendment to his initial emergency declaration, DELAWARE Gov. John Carney (D) orders nursing homes and long-term care facilities to immediately establish a group of staff members to care for residents with COVID-19, separate areas for those with confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus, and an area for newly admitted and re-admitted residents to be observed for early signs of COVID-19 for 14 days (DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL, DELAWARE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE).

Social Policy: VIRGINIA Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signs SB 868, a bill that makes the Old Dominion the first southern state to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, public and private employment, public accommodations, and access to credit. The measure further bars businesses and other private organizations from denying the use of their ladies’ rooms — or locker rooms, or dressing rooms — to adult biological males (VIRGINIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE). Also in VIRGINIA, Northam signs HB 972, which eliminates jail time for simple marijuana possession. Civil penalties and fines remain in place (VOX). A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court’s ruling that overturned an executive order from OKLAHOMA Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) banning abortions being performed during the COVID-19 emergency (ASSOCIATED PRESS).

Local Front: The PENNSYLVANIA House gives final approval to SB 841, legislation that would allow remote notarization of documents and remote public meetings, as well as give municipalities flexibility to postpone property tax deadlines (PA POST).

-- Compiled by RICH EHISEN

Other News, Views & a Riff or Two

CA Churches Sue to Stay Open: Three large Southern California churches seeking to continue holding services during the COVID-19 shutdown have filed suit against Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other state officials. The churches argue they are essential services along the lines of grocery stores and other business that are allowed to stay open.

UT Weighing COVID-19 ‘Right to Try’ Bill: Utah lawmakers are scheduled to consider SB 3002, a so-called “right to try” bill that would shield Beehive State physicians from legal liability when prescribing off-label or even experimental medications for coronavirus patients. Although the bill doesn’t name any specific drugs, the bill’s author, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers (R), said it was intended to encourage the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug hyped by President Trump that has not been approved to treat COVID-19. Lawmakers will consider the bill during a special session that began on Thursday.

Wrestling is an Essential Business in FL: Upon further review, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) amended a previous executive order to declare World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. an essential business, thus allowing it to stay open during the COVID-19 shutdown. DeSantis defended the change, saying Sunshine State citizens were “starved for content.” The announcement came within days of the company announcing an employee had tested positive for the virus, and that it was enacting major staff reductions.

-- Compiled by RICH EHISEN