MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers called on lawmakers Wednesday to take up a $5 million plan that would allow his administration to start upgrading an unemployment system that failed to quickly deliver benefits to thousands of jobless Wisconsinites during the pandemic.
Within hours, Republicans who control the Legislature shot down the Democratic governor’s proposal, arguing he can begin to address the problems using existing funding.
Evers said his legislation would start the process to replace the system — the first proposal by a governor to eliminate the decades-old system in 13 years, when state leaders first acknowledged the system would not be able to keep up in times of high unemployment.
Republicans countered by saying he didn’t need legislation and should get started on fixing the state’s system using money that’s already available. But only one of the accounts that they said could be used had enough money in it to start the work, and it was unclear whether that account could be used for computer upgrades.
Evers’ plan comes after two recent state audits that showed the state Department of Workforce Development answered fewer than 1% of calls for help during the height of joblessness during the coronavirus pandemic and kept thousands waiting for months to hear about their claims.
“I’m announcing today I will be calling a special session of the Legislature to take up a plan to modernize our unemployment system and help ensure nothing like this happens to the people of Wisconsin again,” Evers said during his State of the State address Tuesday.
“We know that replacing this system will take years — that’s why it should’ve been done sooner, but it’s also why we now have not another moment to waste. No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done.”
On Wednesday, Evers formally called a special session. Legislative leaders will have to convene the session on Tuesday, but they suggested they would end it quickly without taking up his bill.
“The governor calling us into a special session is pure political grandstanding,” said a statement from Republican Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee. “Governor Evers has had the ability to initiate an IT system upgrade at any time over the past two years. This is just another example of failed leadership and finger-pointing that has harmed tens of thousands of the unemployed across Wisconsin.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu of Oostburg and other Republican leaders also criticized Evers’ plan.
They released a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that listed available accounts Evers could tap to start the project.
The only one of those accounts that has more than $5 million in it is one that is used for fraud prevention and possibly can be used for computer upgrades, according to the fiscal bureau. Many of the accounts cited by Republicans have no funds in them and one of them has an $85 million liability.
The computer upgrade is expected to remain a point of contention as Evers and lawmakers consider the state budget this spring. The time-consuming upgrade is expected to cost as much as $90 million over 10 years.
Republicans have not put attention on upgrading the system since taking power of the Legislature in 2011, after state leaders were aware that the system was not going to keep up during high unemployment.
They have criticized Evers for his handling of unemployment claims and said they want him to fix the issue and keep call centers open longer.
In 2007 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the state Department of Workforce Development abandoned an effort to replace the system even after spending $23.6 million to do so.
Then in 2014, under Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, an audit showed the system at one point blocked up to 80% of calls because of the system’s limits during times of higher unemployment — an infuriating experience for callers that surfaced again in 2020.
Evers fired Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman in September over the agency’s slow performance in resolving thousands of claims.
Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.