By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday called a special legislative session for next week on his new plan to improve the state’s unemployment-benefits system in the face of a massive backlog of pandemic-induced claims.
The governor announced the plan during his State of the State speech on Tuesday evening. He introduced a bill Wednesday morning that calls for the state Department of Workforce Development to conduct all transactions electronically and hands the agency $5.3 million to renovate and modernize the claims system. He also issued an executive order calling for lawmakers to take up the bill in a special session beginning at noon on Jan. 19.
The DWD has received nearly 9 million claims since the coronavirus pandemic started forcing layoffs and business closures in March, Evers said during his speech. That’s about 1.6 million more claims than the department received from 2016 though 2019, he said.
Republicans have spent months criticizing the Democratic governor over the department’s inability to work through the backlog, saying Evers’ incompetence has left people waiting for months for life-sustaining payouts. The criticism has grown so intense that Evers requested that DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman resign in September. Frostman agreed to leave.
Evers blamed an antiquated processing system for the backlog in his speech. He attacked his “predecessors” and lawmakers both past and present for not improving the system sooner.
“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,” Evers said in his speech. “No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done.”
Republican legislative leaders have all but ignored Evers’ special session calls in the past, including on gun control measures and criminal justice reform, by gaveling in and gaveling out in seconds. Evers in his speech warned that if the GOP ignored him this time people will punish them at the ballot box.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday evening in the official Republican response to Evers’ speech that thousands of people are still waiting for their unemployment checks and the governor’s administration owes them an apology.
He didn’t comment directly on the special session call, though. His spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, didn’t immediately respond to an email Wednesday morning. Adam Gibbs, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, also didn’t immediately respond to an email.
Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard issued a statement saying he supports system upgrades but ridiculed the rest of Evers’ plan.
“This is unbelievable,” Wanggaard said. “His ‘plan’ to fix the unemployment fiasco is $5 million to start and a mandate on employers to file online. We waited 10 months for this? Good grief.”