By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers on Wednesday dramatically reshaped Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to upgrade the state’s antiquated unemployment claim technology, eliminating guaranteed funding for the project and absolving businesses and schools of liability for COVID-19 infections.
Republicans have heaped criticism on Evers for months over the state Department of Workforce Development’s inability to clear a massive backlog of pandemic-related unemployment claims. His administration has blamed a processing system that dates back to the 1970s.
The governor in January called a special legislative session to pass a bill that would hand the DWD $5.3 million to renovate and modernize the claims system. The state budget Evers announced on Tuesday would provide the department with $79 million annually to fund the upgrades.
Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee offered their own plan Wednesday.
They eliminated the guaranteed $5.3 million for upgrades and balked at the $79 million request in the budget. Under their plan, the department would have to use federal money and ask the committee for state dollars as needed.
Republicans also added civil liability exemptions for COVID-19 claims against businesses, government entities and schools — a provision sought by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a key Republican donor.
The Republicans included the exemptions in a sweeping COVID-19 relief bill they sent to Evers earlier this month. Evers vetoed the package largely because it would have prohibited employers from requiring vaccinations and limited health officials’ ability to restrict gatherings.
The Republicans also inserted wording that would extend a waiver of a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits through mid-March. A COVID-19 relief bill the Legislature passed in April waived the waiting period through Feb. 6.
Evers has made extending the waiver a priority; states that waive the waiting period can use federal money to pay the first week of claims. The DWD announced Wednesday that it had started working on emergency regulations that would extend the waiver for 150 days, but committee Republicans said extending it through regulatory changes would be illegal.
Rep. Mark Born, a committee co-chairman, called the revised bill a compromise.
“We are here today because the governor has failed to provide leadership when the state needed him the most,” Born said. “Here’s that compromise to get that process moving.”
Democrats chastised Born for grandstanding — “Doing the blame game is not serving any purpose,” Sen. LaTonya Johnson said. But they joined Republicans in passing the changes 15-0, clearing the way for full floor votes in the Assembly and Senate.
The DWD has been grappling with a massive backlog of pandemic-related unemployment claims over the past year. It has received 9.2 million claims since the coronavirus pandemic started forcing layoffs and business closures in March. That’s about 1.6 million more claims than it received between 2016 and 2019.