Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Wisconsin’s 4th Branch of Government

COVID-19 may have more influence on governing than the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

By - Jan 11th, 2021 12:55 pm
2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It became obvious last week that COVID-19 is the fourth branch of Wisconsin state government — equal to, and perhaps ever more powerful than, the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

COVID-19, for example, dictated when and how legislators were sworn in for the 2021-22 session and how the Assembly debated — in person and virtually — and passed the first important bill of the new session.

Instead of traditional inaugural “picture day” Capitol celebrations with legislators and proud family members, the 38 Assembly Democrats were sworn in virtually en masse the week before by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Fearing for their safety, and unsure how many of the 60 Assembly Republicans in the chamber would wear masks and socially distance, no Assembly Democrat sat in the chamber as Republicans were sworn in by a mask-wearing Supreme Court justice in the traditional ceremony.

Then, one by one, because of the pandemic, Assembly Republicans used their own pen and, after removing masks, posed for the traditional photo for the Assembly’s official registry — a practice that goes back about 170 years. There were few congratulatory handshakes. Only the six new Assembly Republicans were allowed to have family members at their inaugurations.

And Assembly Democrats did not join in person when the Assembly Health Committee heard testimony on, and then recommended, Assembly Republicans’ COVID-19 response bill – the first vote in the Assembly in more than 265 days, Evers noted.

Another sign of the pandemic’s power: The first bill that the Assembly passed authorized spending $100 million responding to the plague. But it also includes provisions — making school boards that offer only online learning vote every two weeks to reaffirm that decision, for example — that Evers doesn’t like.

Across the rotunda, only a few Democratic senators were in the Senate chamber, citing the same COVID-19 fears of Assembly Democrats. Republican senators elected on Nov. 3 were sworn in individually, also by a mask-wearing Supreme Court justice, instead of the traditional en masse swearing-in ceremony.

Republicans control the Senate by a 20-12 margin; one seat is vacant.

Wearing an “I can’t breathe” mask and black gloves, Milwaukee Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor chastised Republican senators and visitors in the gallery also not wearing masks; they may be exhaling droplets that could sicken her and had “no respect” for the health of her and her family, she said.

Republican legislative leaders must decide how to run the first online legislative session. For example, Senate leaders a few weeks ago installed plexiglass separating senators in the chamber, but replaced plexiglass with monitors that allow senators to join debate from their offices or homes.

How can legislators offer, circulate and vote on late amendments to bills being debated, if one-third of them are participating virtually?

Will legislators from rural areas with unreliable internet service have trouble attending committee meetings from their homes?

Everything has changed. Halfway through his first term, Evers can only govern only in ways COVID-19 will allow.

In-person relationships and conversations between legislators and governors have resulted in deals that resolved major differences since the first Legislature met in 1848. But the Democratic governor, whose own safety “bubble” is especially tight because he is a survivor of esophageal cancer, has had only phone calls — and just a few of them — with Republican leaders since mid-March.

Tuesday, Evers will have to give the first online State of the State message in Wisconsin history. It is traditionally a colorful event in the Assembly chamber. But where will Assembly Democrats be when he gives that speech, and will senators not even attend in-person?

The proposed 2021-23 budget the Democratic governor will give legislators in February will be shaped, first and foremost, by COVID-19. The virus will dictate spending on health care and, after that, what’s left for schools, prisons, the UW and technical college systems, property tax relief and shared revenue for local governments.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which directs the state’s judicial system, has been meeting online since spring. One of its most important decisions this year will specify what emergency powers governors have, without getting legislators’ approval, to declare public health emergencies, require the wearing of masks and limit room and building occupancies, in order to fight COVID-19.

Let’s slightly revise the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin about the form of government America had created: “A virtual republic, if you can keep it.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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