MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers is signaling he will sign a bill that would begin the process to upgrade the state’s outdated unemployment system that has failed to quickly deliver checks to tens of thousands of Wisconsin residents who lost work during the coronavirus pandemic.
The tip-off from Evers came minutes after the legislation largely written by Republicans sailed through the state Senate and the same day the governor signed a separate GOP bill providing tax relief to businesses that received forgivable loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program as their revenue dried up during the coronavirus pandemic.
The signs of agreement between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature breathe life into Wisconsin’s state government after Republican state lawmakers went 10 months without meeting to pass legislation in response to the health and economic crises facing Wisconsin.
“Modernizing our unemployment system should have been done a long time ago — our system isn’t new and these problems aren’t either, and plenty of members of the Legislature have been serving long enough to no longer be able to claim ignorance,” Evers said in a statement after the bill to upgrade the system passed the Senate 27-3.
But the bill does not include funding to begin the upgrade immediately, which Democrats who voted against the bill said would slow down a solution to an urgent problem.
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.
At least three administrations and hundreds of lawmakers over the last two decades knew that the state’s unemployment system was outdated and had trouble keeping up when job losses spike — a weakness that turned into a catastrophe in 2020 as hundreds of thousands of people who were pushed out of jobs during the pandemic overwhelmed the system.
People waited months to see a single unemployment check — forgoing meals and losing homes in the worst cases.
Republicans have blasted the Evers administration for not taking significant steps to improve the process of determining whether applicants should receive benefits.
In September, Evers fired the Department of Workforce Development leader over the speed at which the problem was being addressed and after a state audit showed not even 1% of calls for help to the agency were answered.
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.
Under the bill heading to the Assembly, the Evers administration would have to get permission from the Legislature’s budget committee to obtain funding for the project that is estimated to require about $80 million.
The bill also would protect businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits and briefly suspend a requirement that those thrown out of work wait a week before qualifying for unemployment. The state is losing millions in federal relief dollars that require the one-week waiting period be removed.
“This bill is a huge first step towards cleaning up the issues, but there is still a long way to go,” Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that the administration will continue to address the internal issues that have slowed down the State’s unemployment system.”
Evers also said the bill is “not enough” but is a step forward.
“While I wish the Legislature would have provided the funding we asked for that we need to fix this system once and for all, I’m glad the Legislature is finally taking this issue seriously after years of inaction,” he said.