Lawmakers decry shortage of workers as they cut workforce development programs from budget

By: - June 3, 2021 1:16 pm
Goyke & Zimmerman

Reps. Evan Goyke, left, and Shannon Zimmerman, right, speaking during Joint Finance Committee debate Wednesday over the state budget. (Screen captures | Wisconsin Eye)

Amid pleas from employers for help in finding workers, Republican lawmakers have stripped about $29 million from the proposed state budget that would have gone to programs intended to expand the workforce.

Voting on party lines Wednesday, the state Legislature’s budget-writing committee passed a GOP rewrite of the original 2021-2023 Department of Workforce Development (DWD) budget plan that came from Gov. Tony Evers.

The Republican version of the budget also deleted $15 million for DWD to administer the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) program.

Instead, the Republican majority of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) added a requirement for Wisconsin to test jobless pay recipients for drugs — a measure originally enacted in the administration of Gov. Scott Walker but not yet implemented. The revised budget also sets aside $25,000 for the state to study changes that could cut the number of weeks a person is able to collect unemployment compensation when the unemployment rate falls.

In separate votes on other portions of the budget, the GOP majority rejected a Democratic proposal to fund $40 million for replacing lead water pipes in cities across the state, and rejected a measure to expand another statewide program to fix failing septic systems. Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) suggested that the Evers administration could use funds from Wisconsin’s share of  the federal American Rescue Plan Act’s pandemic-relief aid to pay for the lead pipe replacement.

The septic system program covers 60% of the cost for fixing or replacing failing septic systems for property owners with annual incomes of less than $45,000. With the committee vote, that program, in effect since the late 1970s, will instead expire this June 30.

On the DWD portion of the budget, other elements of the Evers administration’s proposal survived Wednesday in reduced form.

The GOP revision includes additional funds to help people with disabilities get jobs, but the increase was a fraction of what the administration sought. It expands who is eligible for a federally funded program to promote hiring for military veterans, but left out funding for an administrator that DWD had proposed to assist in connecting that programt with more veterans, as well as with more employers and finding career options.

The revised budget increases the size of grants that participants receive in the state’s youth apprenticeship program, which introduces high school students to various occupations. It also gives the administration greater flexibility in how the program is funded.

Throughout Wednesday’s budget session, votes see-sawed between 4-12, as the Republican majority (12) rejected attempts by the Democrats (4) to restore Evers’ original budget proposals, and 12-4, as the Republicans passed their own revisions over the Democrats’ opposition.

Contrasting labor shortage strategies

Central to the divide over the DWD budget was how each side viewed the recent alarms from employers about their struggles to hire more workers.

Included in DWD’s original budget were a series of programs totaling about $29 million over two years to support help for dislocated workers as well as people largely detached from the workforce.

One was for a $10 million ‘worker connection’ program to provide jobless people with more support in their efforts to seek and hold jobs. DWD’s secretary-designee, Amy Pechacek, has previously described the proposed program as an effort to ensure people who face challenges such as securing child care or transportation get support to stick with jobs instead of dropping out of the labor market.

Another $18 million was divided into training grants for people who would need new jobs because of economic changes brought on by the pandemic, and job training grants to regional workforce development boards as their communities recover from the pandemic. Another $200,000 would have assisted in recruiting and preparing people for health care occupations, and $500,000 for training in “green” jobs.

After the Democrats’ proposal that included those provisions was defeated Wednesday, the Republicans advanced their alternative that omitted them. Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) said that at the River Falls winery he owns, “we can’t get people to fill our open jobs,” and described the GOP version as “taking a step in the right direction” to address the problem.

“I don’t know that I remember a time in the state of Wisconsin,where workforce challenges were this substantial,” Zimmerman said. “We have a workforce crisis on our hands right now and we can debate the reasons why, but we need to take action.”

That brought a rejoinder from Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), who lamented “missed opportunities” in the GOP version.

“Rep. Zimmerman just said, ‘Workforce crisis! We need to take action!’ — and then introduces a budget motion that does not take action, compared to the Democratic proposal that we just voted on. If this shortage exists, if the winery is struggling to find workers, then invest state resources in helping connect workers and employers,” Goyke said. “If there’s a crisis and we need to take action, then why aren’t you taking action?”

But JFC’s Assembly co-chair, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), dismissed the programs just cut from the budget as “ways to keep people on welfare programs, to keep them out of the workforce.” He put the blame for the struggles that employers have been having in finding enough workers on unemployment compensation and related federal support programs that were established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The biggest economic challenge that we face right now is the workforce,” said Born. “We have to get people back into it. We still have over 130,000 people on different types of federal and state benefits instead of getting back into the workforce.”

If the now-scotched proposals “are really the secret to get this done, then use the federal money,” Born added, reiterating a common refrain Republicans have been making on funding for budget items they reject. “And there’s tons of federal money available.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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