Republicans resist Evers’ call to special session on unemployment upgrades

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers is calling the legislature in next week to pass funding to upgrade the state’s unemployment insurance program, but Republicans are so far resistant to the plan.

In a bill proposal Evers released on Wednesday, he wants the legislature to sign off on giving $5.3 million to the Department of Workforce Development. The money would allow the department to get a jumpstart on upgrading the decades-old IT system at the unemployment office.

The bill would also make electronic communication the default for DWD-employer contact. Currently the department must mail and fax documents to and from employers.

The secretary-designee of the department said the system was slow to incorporate federal pandemic unemployment programs, and besides the massive increase in claims, she said it was one of the main reasons for the months-long delay many Wisconsinites faced when claiming benefits.

In his State of the State response Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, blamed Evers’ “lack of leadership” as the reason thousands had to wait.

Evers told News 3 Now that could be the case if he or anyone had realized what a mess the pandemic would be.

“We were doing our best just to keep people safe,” he said. “The most important thing now, and he can continue to complain about me I don’t really care about that, the people of Wisconsin expect us to fix this system.”

Evers wants the legislature to come in for a special session on Tuesday to pass this bill, which prevents the department from having to wait until the budget passes this summer to get started on this modernization effort.

Republicans in the legislature released a statement Wednesday indicating they do not support the bill.

“Legislative audits have shown the major issues with the backlog at the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) during the pandemic were not due to an old computer system but rather mismanagement of the agency itself,” Republican leaders said in a joint statement.

The group, including the chairs of the Joint Committee on Finance, cited a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that suggested the department has the authority to move forward with purchasing IT upgrades on its own.

“Governor Evers continues to cast blame on others and accepts little fault himself,” Vos said in the statement. “We are always open to passing necessary legislation, but unfortunately, this Special Session call is about politics; not about policy.”