MADISON – The state Assembly unanimously sent Gov. Tony Evers a bill Tuesday to begin upgrading the computer infrastructure that runs the state’s problem-ridden unemployment system.
The long-neglected computer overhaul contributed to weeks- and months-long delays in getting benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed Wisconsinites last year when the state saw a historic increase in claims because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill would give the state Department of Workforce Development the authority to find a firm or firms that can do the work, which is expected to cost $80 million or more.
The legislation does not include any funding for the project and the Democratic governor’s administration will have to get permission from the Republican-run Legislature’s budget committee before it can commence an upgrade.
The Assembly approved the bill 89-0 a week after the Senate approved it 27-3. Evers last week signaled he will sign it, even as he and other Democrats called for including funding in the measure.
Work on the computer upgrade has been put off for years. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle started it but abandoned it in 2007 after spending $23 million on it because of delays and cost overruns. His successor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, did not revive the project during his eight years in office.
Republicans in the Legislature argued Evers should have done more last year to make sure people got their benefits, such as by assigning more staff to the problem. Evers said he did what he could but in September fired his workforce development secretary for not moving faster and after a state audit showed fewer than 1% of calls for unemployment help were answered.
“We’re here because the governor wouldn’t lead,” said Republican Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee.
Democrats said Republicans should have acted sooner instead of blaming Evers.
“What is the Assembly doing today that it couldn’t have done weeks ago — months ago?” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh.
Evers last month called a special session to take up a plan that would have put an initial $5 million toward the problem. Republicans rebuffed him, but last week said they would pass a modified version of his bill without funding.
Their version of the legislation also includes a top priority for Republicans — giving protections to businesses, local governments and school districts from coronavirus-related litigation.
In addition, the bill would briefly suspend a requirement that the unemployed wait a week before qualifying for unemployment.
Republicans a decade ago passed a law requiring the waiting period to shore up the state’s unemployment fund, but they suspended it last year because of the pandemic. Under that law, the waiting period went back into effect this month.
The legislation lawmakers are now considering a bill that would again suspend the waiting period, but only until March 13.
If the bill is signed by Evers, those who lost their jobs in recent weeks will be able to retroactively claim benefits for the first week they were out of work.
For those workers, the state will likely have to cover all of their benefits. If state officials had handled the issue more quickly, they could have had the federal government cover half of those costs, saving the state about $4.5 million.
Republicans say Evers is to blame because he vetoed recent legislation that included a provision on the waiting period. Democrats say Republicans are at fault because they gave Evers a bill they knew he wouldn’t support.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.