GOP, Democrats split on emergency powers, unemployment, benefit programs

By: - February 18, 2022 7:00 am

“Unemployment Office” (Bytemarks | Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly passed legislation Thursday to block the governor from shutting down businesses statewide in a future emergency along with several bills tightening access to unemployment insurance (UI) and other public benefit programs.

Republican authors of the bills to change UI and impose new restrictions on Medicaid and FoodShare portrayed the measures as tools to help ease the difficulties that employers have reported, particularly in the last year, in hiring workers.

“We’re right sizing these programs for individuals who are eligible to remain on them and people who are not eligible to not remain on them,” said Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa).

Democratic lawmakers pushed back, arguing that they were mean-spirited proposals and wouldn’t serve their stated purpose.

“Those benefits are not enough to be the disincentive that Republicans want to portray them to be,” said Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). “The disincentive is not having access to child care or transportation. A disincentive is not having adequate resources for mental health care for drug and alcohol treatment.”

Many of the bills passed on party-line votes, suggesting that at least some will face a veto if they reach Gov. Tony Evers.

Other pieces of legislation — including some that passed on voice votes and without discussion — called for funding that would come from Wisconsin’s allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Evers has repeatedly vetoed legislation that relied on ARPA funds, pointing to Wisconsin law that gives the governor sole control over much of the federal money that comes to the state.

Emotions ran high at times during the floor session, which ran for more than three hours.

That started with the bill to block future emergency shutdowns, AB-912 — an effort to prevent actions like the Safer at Home order that the Evers administration issued in March 2020 early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Evers renewed it after one month, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court canceled it two weeks later after the Republican leaders in the Legislature filed a lawsuit.

On Thursday one GOP lawmaker after another rose to condemn the short-lived order, which closed all but businesses designated “essential” in an attempt to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.

Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) launched the series of speeches with a reference to Evers’ State of the State address Tuesday night, then made a comparison to someone who visits a hospital emergency room, “and the attending physician pulls out a gun and shoots you, and then says, ‘Here let me help you with your injury.’”

“Quite frankly, I think one person in this state owes a lot of people an apology,” said Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville). “We sent a message to small business owners across this state — you are not essential. That is never acceptable.”

The only Democrat to speak was Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa). “I just want to respond to how we talk in this room,” said Vining, objecting to Allen’s use of “a metaphor that involved gun violence.” As Wisconsin leaders, “people look at us and they listen to how we talk, and words matter,” she said.

Otherwise, though, the Democrats stayed out of the discussion before voting against the bill, which passed 59-35.

Advancing the legislation on UI, FoodShare and Medicaid, the Republicans continually referred to the programs as “welfare” and asserted that they were among the reasons employers were having trouble filling jobs.

“The number of employers looking to hire new staff has drastically increased,” said Rep. Calvin Callahan (R-Tomahawk), “while many able bodied folks who could be working are actually standing on the sidelines.” Callahan spoke for a bill that would cut people off BadgerCare if they turn down a job or a promotion to avoid losing their eligibility for the health insurance program.

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said benefit programs aren’t responsible for the workforce problems employers are having. “Wisconsin’s labor force has remained flat for many years,” Hong said. “Our low birth rates means there aren’t enough people to replace those who might be retiring.”

A bill requiring the UI program to ramp up audits to make sure people collecting jobless benefits are looking for work would “fatigue the operations and the administration of the Department of Workforce Development [DWD] to the point of dysfunction,” Hong said.

“Let DWD do its job,” she said. “Help it upgrade and streamline its process without punishing the agency and the people that they serve. Stop making it harder for people in this state and easier for yourself — and stop distracting from the fact that we have opportunities to do good.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and 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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