By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans balked Wednesday at Gov. Tony Evers’ call for a special legislative session next week to pass his plan for improving the state’s unemployment-benefits system in the face of a massive backlog of pandemic-induced claims.
The Democratic governor announced the plan to improve the system during his State of the State speech on Tuesday. He introduced a bill Wednesday 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 its claims system. He also issued an executive order calling for lawmakers to take up the bill in a special session beginning at noon on Tuesday.
But Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly accused Evers of trying to shift blame. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Evers’ plan, which appears dead on arrival, is about politics, not policy.
“Governor Evers already has the funding and tools he needs to fix the problems,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu. “Now, instead of effectively using his resources, he’s scrambling to shift blame while people are still left waiting.”
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 Evers over the department’s inability to process the backlog, saying his’ 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 has blamed an antiquated processing system for the backlog and said lawmakers, both past and present, have avoided investing the money necessary to improve it sooner. But Republicans said Evers has the power to make changes now and pointed to a December audit of the Department of Workforce Development that blamed the agency for much of the delays.
Republican legislative leaders have all but ignored Evers’ special session calls in the past, including sessions on gun control 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.
But this special session call appears headed for the same fate.