Over two days this week, from the meeting room of the Legislature’s budget committee to the floor of the state Assembly, lawmakers of both political parties held an extended argument about the government’s role in fostering economic prosperity.
Wednesday’s Assembly vote, with all 60 Republicans in favor of a bill ending the $300 federal unemployment supplement, and all 37 Democrats present opposed, capped more than two hours of speeches for and against the legislation. The bill went to the state Senate, where it immediately passed on a party-line vote, sending it to the desk of Gov. Tony Evers. Evers hasn’t said whether he’ll sign the legislation, but he has vetoed almost all bills that lack bipartisan support.
Supporters of ending the extra unemployment pay, established during the COVID-19 pandemic, blame the additional funds for leading jobless people to avoid looking for work, worsening a shortage of workers in many industries, but particularly for restaurants and other hospitality establishments.
“We need to make sure that every single able bodied individual is ready and able to work,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). “We are using the resources of the federal government to encourage people to stay on the sidelines for a whole host of reasons.”
A series of studies have not found evidence that the extra pay is keeping people from seeking work, however. Outside observers as well as opponents of ending the federal unemployment supplement point to other factors that have kept people out of the workforce.
To advance their argument that much more than the federal supplement was at fault as employers are struggling to fill vacancies, Assembly Democrats proposed a substitute amendment to rewrite the GOP bill. In its place, they proposed boosting child care pay and also sought to reinstate a series of workforce training and support programs that Evers had proposed in his 2021-2023 budget, all of which were scrapped by the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee.
“I hear from business owners in my district constantly, they need help,” declared Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska) as he offered the Democratic amendment. “I hear from unemployed workers in my district constantly, they want to work, many just need access to affordable childcare. This amendment will help this bill to actually solve the problem.”
The Assembly’s Republican majority blocked the Democratic amendment as “not germane,” and a few minutes later, Vos mocked the proposal as “another government program” that would be “paying people to stay at home and thinking that somehow that will be enough initiative for them to get off the unemployment rolls.”
Republican lawmakers offered numerous accounts of business owners who have told them they can’t find enough workers and who assert that it is because of the federal unemployment supplement.
Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) said employers in his district have told him that “if people do come in and apply, that they say, ‘Well I’ll wait and see.’” Snyder acknowledged that “I did the same thing — I would go around and interview for jobs, not give them an answer, [and say] wait and see. But you know what the difference is? I had a job — I was already working.”
Democratic representatives, however, noted frequently that employers have been complaining about labor shortages for years, and that the Wisconsin unemployment rate now has fallen close to where it was in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic took off.
Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) recalled seeing many help-wanted signs in her district before the pandemic, when the unemployment rate was in the neighborhood of 3%.
“In April 2021, we were still at 3.2%,” Billings said. “So if there are so many people that are sitting at home on couches, why isn’t that number higher?”
Billings joined other Democrats who reiterated the importance of child care in making it possible for more women in particular to return to the workforce.
“We have families who declined to move to La Crosse as they look at the numbers and the difficulty of getting childcare,” Billings said.
Visions of government
Threaded through the hours of speeches from lawmakers of both parties were two conflicting descriptions of the role of government.
Republicans described a vision for government’s role that would largely stay out of the way with narrowly drawn exceptions.
“The private sector should not be competing with the government,” said Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), who with several others in his party warned that potentially crippling inflation might be on the horizon because of federal spending.
But Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) quoted a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo this week that concluded a projected $4.4 billion windfall in additional tax revenues to the state was due almost entirely to the stimulus checks to households from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that Congress enacted earlier this year without any Republican support.
“You opposed everything that has to do with the $4.4 billion” additional revenue, he told the Assembly’s Republican majority. “Zero. The audacity to attack government, which we just heard, and celebrate the new revenue growth is even more absurd.”
Hintz also tied Wisconsin’s hiring struggles to the shrinking population of young adults. He contended that they are driven out of state by unpopular policy decisions that were promoted over the last decade by Republicans who commanded the majority in the Legislature as well as the governor’s office from 2011 to 2019.
Hintz pointed to a vote Tuesday night by the Republican majority on the Joint Finance Committee that cut 50% of the funds Evers had budgeted for the bus lines in Milwaukee and Madison.
At that meeting, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) both criticized the cut and described transit as a critical component of addressing the shortage of workers.
“What do you think reducing the transportation budget by 50% is going to do?” said Johnson. “It’s going to affect those people that use the transit system to get to and from work.”
The finance committee’s co-chair, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), however, said federally funded COVID-relief aid for mass transit systems would take the place of the state’s cut.
Two business owners
On the Assembly floor Wednesday, Hintz revisited the previous evening’s action.
“In our two biggest markets you gave the finger to employers and … to workers … and said ‘We’re going to cut you off from those jobs by cutting your transit budget by 50%,’” he said.
As the debate headed toward the roll-call vote, Rep. David Steffen (R-Green Bay) painted Democrats as out of touch with the experiences of business owners.
“Because, guess what? Four fifths of the people on this side of the aisle? We are employers and have been employers,” Steffen said. “We know what it’s like to sign the front of the check versus just the back. Now, looking at the folks on the other side of the aisle, I believe there is one.”
His characterization drew an impassioned retort from first-term Rep Francesca Hong (D-Madison).
“As an employer, as someone on this side of the aisle, as a restaurant owner, and a chef, a mom, I am tired of hearing people from this body not represent the majority of the people in this state and what we need,” Hong said, “and tired of not recognizing that center to any business is the health and welfare of the employees.”
Hong said she had had to close her restaurant early in the pandemic “having to hope that my employees would come back” when she could reopen as the economy recovers.
The pandemic is controlled, Hong said, but it hasn’t ended. And while the workforce shortage is a crisis, so was the pandemic, and both suggest to her a need for “collective, comprehensive policies” to strengthen communities.
“And for folks talking about freedoms and personal responsibility, does that not take place for employers as well as employees?” Hong asked. “And to say that we’re out of touch with our workforce, because we’re advocating for them?”
“I just think there’s a lot of work y’all have to do before you speak for workers,” she added. “And I encourage you all to do that.”