MADISON – The Legislature’s budget committee unanimously approved a plan Wednesday to overhaul the state’s unemployment insurance computer system and protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.
The plan — built on one by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that Republicans shot down last month — does not include immediate funding to upgrade the outdated computer system that has contributed to months-long delays for many seeking unemployment benefits. Under the legislation, the Evers administration would have to get permission from the Legislature’s budget committee to obtain funding for the project.
Both Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature have said replacing the computer system is a priority, but for months have squabbled over how to do it.
The plan that advanced Wednesday would also briefly suspend a requirement that those thrown out of work wait a week before qualifying for unemployment benefits.
The one-week waiting period would go back into effect in mid-March — 3½ weeks from now. Evers and other Democrats support permanently ending the waiting period.
Whether the plan can get approval from Evers remains unclear, but the bipartisan support for it Wednesday suggests he may be on board. Evers spokesman Britt Cudaback would not say whether the governor supported the Republican proposal.
The Joint Finance Committee approved the bill 15-0 on Wednesday. That allows the bill to go to the Senate and Assembly, which could vote on it soon.
Evers last month called a special legislative session to take up a plan that would put $5 million toward beginning work on the computer project. Republicans immediately rejected that idea, but on Wednesday offered a modified version of Evers’ plan with the funding removed.
The latest version of the bill would clear the way for the administration to request proposals from IT firms that could overhaul the computer system.
Once estimates are submitted, the administration would have to request funding from the finance committee. The project could cost $80 million or more, though some of that may be covered by federal funds.
‘It needs to be fixed’
Evers’ workforce development secretary, Amy Pechacek, told the finance committee she didn’t know how her agency could award a contract without funding. But she added she would return to the committee with a funding request if that’s what is needed to get it done.
“We are willing to do what it takes to get this going,” Pechacek said, adding she wanted to do whatever she could to get the project started.
Republicans said Evers has failed to get on top of unemployment claims, which hit historic levels last year because of the pandemic.
“We are here today because the governor has failed to provide leadership when our state needed him most,” said Rep. Mark Born, a Beaver Dam Republican and one of the co-chairmen of the finance committee.
Democrats countered that Republican lawmakers should have put money toward fixing the computer system long ago. But they said it was imperative that the project get started now.
“It needs to be fixed,” said Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee.
With the new legislation, Republicans have combined two hot-button issues that both sides consider high priorities — fixing the unemployment system and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans have put an emphasis on protecting businesses, local governments and schools from litigation related to COVID-19. Evers has said he is willing to go along with that idea but wants it coupled with other measures, such as $100 million in funding to deal with the pandemic.
Because of the aging computer system, the Department of Workforce Development has faced delays in implementing the latest federal stimulus package, which was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in December.
The $300 weekly payments to everyone receiving $1 or more in unemployment didn’t start going out to Wisconsinites until the middle of January, weeks after they were approved. And other payments, for programs like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — which provides unemployment to independent contractors and self-employed Americans — still haven’t started going out to those who have applied.
According to a department tracker for the federal programs, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments for those who have applied for the program since the beginning of January won’t start being sent until April 21 — more than a month after the federal stimulus package is slated to end in mid-March.
For the week ending Jan. 6, nearly 15,000 people filed new applications for regular unemployment. About 105,000 received regular unemployment payments. Neither number includes those who are applying or receiving money through the federal programs.
One-week waiting period
Republican lawmakers years ago imposed the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits but suspended it last year because of the pandemic and an influx of federal funds to cover unemployment benefits.
The waiting period went back into effect this month. Republicans want to suspend it again until March 13 because the federal government will cover some of the benefits until then.
Evers’ Department of Workforce Development is now attempting to suspend the waiting period with a new state rule.
The department submitted a scope statement Monday, which is the first step to establishing an emergency rule. Amy Barrilleaux, the communications director for the department, said that if the rule is approved, it would go into effect as early as March 5 and remain in place for months.
The rule change would need to be approved by a committee overseen by Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater, and his chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen, said the department and committee can’t suspend the waiting period on their own because it’s included in state law.
“No agency can waive the law,” he said.
Republicans put the waiting period in effect nearly a decade ago to bolster the state’s unemployment fund and encourage out-of-work Wisconsinites to begin looking for another job quickly, Mikalsen said.
“It’s a Republican reform they feel strongly about,” he said. “Pre-COVID, even if someone did lose their job, they could find employment quickly.”
Democrats oppose the waiting period, saying those who lose their jobs should immediately receive help.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.