MADISON -- Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, April 21 to block an extension of the Democratic governor's stay-at-home order, the most partisan divide yet in the fight against the coronavirus.
The lawsuit came even as Vice President Mike Pence said during a tour of a Madison ventilator manufacturer that social distancing and other mitigation efforts are slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuit was expected after Gov. Tony Evers' health secretary last week ordered most nonessential businesses to remain closed until May 26. The original order had been scheduled to end Friday.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asked the conservative-controlled Supreme Court to take the case directly, skipping lower courts and allowing for a faster final ruling. They argue Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm exceeded her authority by exercising “czar-like powers.”
Vos and Fitzgerald said there was “immense frustration” with the extension, which the lawsuit argues if left in place will devastate the economy and leave Wisconsin “in shambles.” Protests against the order have popped up around the state, with one scheduled for Friday at the Capitol.
Evers lashed out at Vos and Fitzgerald during a call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, accusing the Republicans of launching “a political coup” to seize power from the executive branch. He predicted more people will die if the Legislature wins the case and lawmakers spend weeks trying to draft their own rules to blunt the virus' spread.
“It's about power," Evers said. "If they win, they get it. Political power should not trump life.” He implored the conservative justices to “do the right thing” and rule in his administration's favor.
On Monday, Evers released his plan for reopening Wisconsin that requires, among other things, a 14-day decline in positive COVID-19 cases and more protective equipment, tests and other supplies to deal with the pandemic. He said his plan mirrors guidelines issued by President Donald Trump's administration.
“I just accepted the biggest Republican in the country, his plan, because it’s a rational plan," Evers said. “Now, if the state Republicans don’t think Donald Trump is appropriate, they can deal with Donald Trump, I guess.”
Also Tuesday, Pence visited GE Healthcare in Madison, where he thanked the workers manufacturing ventilators for patients hospitalized with the virus. He said embracing social distancing and other mitigation efforts have slowed the spread of the virus and freed up capacity in the health care system.
According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, there were 318 COVID-19 patients on ventilators as of Monday and there were 1,251 ventilators available statewide.
Democrats used Pence's visit to criticize the federal response to the pandemic. Former Vice President Joe Biden accused Pence of using Wisconsin as a “backdrop to a political photo opportunity.”
Pence, who has sought to assure states about federal help, posed with GE Healthcare employees and accepted a T-shirt that said “Union machinists saves lives.” He thanked them and their union for upping production.
GE Healthcare announced last month that it was doubling ventilator production and expanding the Madison facility to become a 24-hour operation. GE said it plans to double production again by the end of June.
Wisconsin does not have the supplies it needs to combat the virus, said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan, all Democrats, in a letter to President Trump sent Monday.
The criticism echoes concerns from Evers and other governors.
Pocan, citing a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wisconsin has received only a fraction of the supplies that Evers requested. The White House provided a tally that included supplies provided by FEMA and purchased from private vendors.
Wisconsin has received about 2,800 out of 60,000 plastic tips requested for testing and about 3,500 out of 10,000 testing swabs, according to letters between the state and federal officials provided by Pocan. It has also not received the number of reagent kits and other testing materials that Evers requested in March.
In a letter to Pocan, Baldwin and Moore, FEMA regional administrator James Joseph said the agency has made “enormous efforts” to fulfill Wisconsin's needs but that global demand outpaces supply.
To date, 242 people have died in Wisconsin and more than 4,600 have tested positive. There were 358 people hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Monday, a decline of 83 patients over the past seven days.
Speaker Vos and Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald released the following statement:
“The public outcry over the Safer at Home order continues to increase as positive COVID cases decrease or remain flat. There’s immense frustration regarding the extension, as it goes beyond the executive branch’s statutory powers. Wisconsinites are forced to sit by with no voice in the process. Other Midwestern states with more confirmed cases, like Ohio, have set firm dates to begin a phased reopening far earlier than the Evers administration.
“The governor has denied the people a voice through this unprecedented administrative overreach. Unfortunately, that leaves the legislature no choice but to ask the Supreme Court to rein in this obvious abuse of power. Wisconsinites deserve certainty, transparency, and a plan to end the constant stream of executive orders that are eroding both the economy and their liberty even as the state is clearly seeing a decline in COVID infections.”