By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled finance committee voted Thursday to give the state’s embattled professional licensing agency a fraction of the new positions that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers requested to improve application turnaround times.
Evers had included 80 new positions for the Department of Safety and Professional Services in his budget proposal. Republicans on the finance committee voted Thursday evening to give the agency 17.75 new positions. Thirteen of them would be temporary. The Republicans also voted to spend an additional $6.2 million for technology and equipment improvements within the agency.
The Department of Safety and Professional Services oversees licensing for hundreds of occupations, including doctors, nurses, construction and trades workers, accountants and realtors. Republicans have blamed Evers’ administration for lengthy agency delays in processing license applications and answering calls.
Dan Hereth, who took charge of the troubled department last year, testified in March that wait times for license applications had decreased to an average of 38 days, an improvement on the nearly 80-day averages reported in 2021.
Evers requested 20 new positions for the department in the 2019-2021 budget and 12 positions in the 2021-2023 budget. But the Legislature approved only one new position each time.
Democrats on the finance committee railed against the latest Republican plan, saying 17 new positions won’t be nearly enough to improve the agency’s performance. Rep. Evan Goyke said Republicans can no longer criticize Evers for the agency’s struggles after refusing to give the department the people it needs.
“It’s not enough,” Goyke said. “You own any issues going forward.”
Republican Rep. Shannon Zimmerman said that the GOP doesn’t want to “overcorrect” with dozens of new positions. The combination of new leadership, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and influx of technology should lead to further improvements, he said.
“We should expect they’ll perform better with fewer people,” he said.
Republican Mark Born, a committee co-chair, was more blunt, saying he hoped the department would “get its (expletive) together.”
In other budget actions Thursday, committee Republicans:
— Approved providing $15.3 million more annually for workers within the state Corrections Department. The move brings total overtime funding for prison workers to about $95.6 million annually. Evers’ budget called for providing about $47.6 million annually for overtime expenses.
Lawmakers have been struggling to fill mounting vacancies within the prison system for years. More than 1,500 corrections officer jobs, or one in three of the total positions needed to run the state’s prisons, were vacant as of the most recent pay period in June, according to the department’s website.
The committee’s co-chairs, Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born, said the committee would consider raises for corrections workers soon but didn’t give a date.
— Stripped provisions from Evers’ budget that would have used state dollars to backfill soon-to-expire federal funding for the state Justice Department’s Office of School Safety. The office is currently funded in part with about $1.8 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. That funding stream will expire in December. The governor’s budget would have backfilled that loss with $996,000 in state tax dollars. Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, said in a statement that the committee’s move left him stunned.
— Approved spending $123,600 in the second year of the budget to fund three forensic analyst positions within the state crime labs. The governor’s budget would have spent $154,800 in the second year to continue funding four analyst positions. The positions are currently funded through federal COVID-19 relief aid but that money will stop in 2024-2025. Forensic toxicologists typically test for drugs, alcohol and poison in tissue, blood and urine.
— Deleted the governor’s plan to spend $547,000 over the biennium to add four more DNA analysts to the crime labs.
The committee is expected to finish revising Evers’ budget by the end of June and forward it on to the full Assembly and Senate for floor votes. Approval by both houses would send the spending plan back to Evers, who can use his partial veto powers to rewrite the document.