Unemployment benefits application (photo by Getty Images)
Five bills that would make changes to Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance system, one that bars local governments from establishing taxpayer-funded guaranteed income programs and one that makes it easier to cut people off from Medicaid benefits passed the Assembly Tuesday — all of them on party-line votes that suggest they will face vetoes if they reach the desk of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
An eighth bill that imposes new metrics to evaluate the state’s workforce training and placement programs also passed with only Republican votes.
Republican lawmakers said they were intended to address the struggles employers have had filling job openings.
With unemployment compensation and other assistance programs, “there’s going to be gamers,” said Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls). “Let’s find a way to get them back in the workforce and fill these jobs so our employers don’t go looking elsewhere.”
Democratic lawmakers argued that the measures were unnecessary at best and needlessly punitive at worst.
“People enduring financial difficulty are not political footballs, they’re people,” said State Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa). “And this legislature needs to stop attacking people for partisan political gain. What you’re doing here today is cruel.”
Democrats called on Republicans to shift gears and instead address what they said were the chief obstacles to addressing the need for workers.
“The problem in Wisconsin is not folks sitting on the sidelines,” said Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), the Assembly minority leader, at a Democratic press conference before the floor session. “And we need to address our workforce challenges by recruiting and retaining workers for long-term success. We need to make meaningful investments in affordable child care, housing, transportation, and other supports like paid family leave, to ensure Wisconsin has a healthy, thriving workforce.”
While debate took place with every measure, the talking points and the arguments tended to recycle from one bill to the next on both sides.
Democrats repeatedly called on Republicans to address the need for affordable child care, highlighting Evers’ budget provision to spend $340 million for better child care worker wages and to offset tuition costs for parents.
They also mentioned the failure of Wisconsin to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, something Evers has attempted repeatedly and been rebuffed by the Republicans.
Republicans continued to suggest that some people have stayed out of the job market thanks to benefits programs, notwithstanding the state’s 2.5% unemployment rate.
And GOP lawmakers repeatedly referred back to the April 4 advisory referendum in which 79% of Wisconsin voters answered “yes” to the question, “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?”
At an Assembly Republican press conference before the session, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) tied that vote to a favorite catch-phrase of Evers, who vetoed previous versions of several of the bills that were on the floor Tuesday.
“I heard Gov. Evers in his inaugural address where he said the will of the people should be the law of the land,” Vos said. “Here’s a prime example. Hopefully, he’s changed his mind. He’s looked at even in Dane County, certainly not a Republican bastion, that passed with overwhelming support.”
Several other Republican lawmakers reiterated the argument, yoking the Evers phrase to the lopsided vote for the welfare referendum, over the course of Tuesday’s session.
Democrats sought to turn the argument back on the Republicans.
“Really today is about the GOP demonizing the so-called lazy Wisconsinites,” said Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) late in the session. “But in truth, they’re making it harder and making our state less attractive to work and live in.”
The first bill up for debate, AB-146, would bar state or local tax dollars from being used to fund guaranteed basic income programs, something that no community in Wisconsin has proposed to do. Madison is in the midst of a program funded by private donations.
“This bill does not shut down any charities that are already in place. This bill does not stop what the state budget already provides for people,” said state Rep. Amy Binsfield, the bill’s author. “This bill simply says that if we’re going to as a society continue to raise money for people, let communities be involved, just not the government.”
Democrats responded to the legislation by focusing on its override of local control. “We have problems that we can work towards solving, we do not have the extra time to spend and create solutions for problems that do not exist,” said Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison), adding, “We should not tell local government the best way to serve their communities.”
The unemployment insurance bills and the Medicaid measure followed in succession.
Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) made the first of what would be several speeches from minority-party lawmakers over the five-and-a-half hour session that turned Republican arguments about the dearth of job applicants on their head.
“If there’s one thing that I think everyone in this room can agree on, it’s that we have a workforce shortage,” Shankland said. “What I have found however, Mr. Speaker, is that some of my colleagues, to put it gently, have scapegoated hardworking people instead of looking at the facts.”
Demographics — aging baby boomers who have entered retirement and a smaller cohort of younger generations to take their place — is “the number one cause of our workforce shortage,” she said.
Noting that several of the bills had been introduced in the 2021-23 legislative session, Shankland called the GOP proposals “failed retreads that are apparently my colleagues’ solution to the workforce crisis, instead of real bipartisan policies that we should be working on and voting on.” She enumerated among them, child care, affordable housing and transit — all issues that Evers has addressed in his proposed 2023-25 state budget.
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Rep. Barb Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) countered that the objective of the unemployment bills was to “cut the fraud, the waste, the abuse with all this, tighten up our system and get people back to work where they’re so desperately needed.”
Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) pushed back in turn. “You would love to have the people of the state of Wisconsin believe that fraud is running rampant in our UI division,” Sinicki told Republican lawmakers. “People are sitting on their butts at home collecting unemployment for months or for years on end. That is a fairy tale.”
Sinicki also sounded another recurring theme raised by Democrats, criticizing the GOP bills and their authors for not working with the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD), where “they probably would have told you that this bill is completely unnecessary,” she said. “Everything in this bill is already being done.”
While Democrats accused the Republican bills of being an insult to Wisconsin workers, Republican representatives sprinkled some of their comments with anecdotes that they said demonstrated abuse of the benefit programs was real.
“DWD rarely audits job searches, and we know this from their own information,” said Rep. Warren Petryk (R-Town of Washington). “Claimants are aware that current rules … are not being enforced, and so willfully, they’re not following up.”
Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) rejected Democratic accusations that members of his caucus were writing off all jobless people.
“I think that the vast majority of people that collect unemployment, they’re hard-working people that just need a hand while they get back on their feet,” Kitchens said.
“But when I hear from the other side that there are no people that take advantage or cheat, I don’t think that they must ever talk to business owners,” he added. “They’ve never heard from people [who] come in and say, ‘Well, here, I’m applying, but I don’t want to interview. I don’t really want this job.’ I hear it all the time.”
Democrats responded with anecdotes of their own.
Discussing a bill that would penalize unemployment recipients who “ghost” prospective employers by not showing up for scheduled job interviews, Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) described a conversation with his wife, Becky Cooper, who operates Bounce MKE, a restaurant and family recreation venue.
She told him that ghosting by prospective employees was a problem for them four years ago, but in 2023, “she said we aren’t ghosted any more,” Clancy said. “And we didn’t fix that through legislation,” he continued. “We fixed that as a small employer by paying more money, having health insurance and having a union. And people started showing up for those interviews, they started taking the jobs when they were offered.”
Clancy criticized the GOP lawmakers for having passed laws that block municipalities in the state from enacting higher labor standards, such as requiring paid sick leave or setting a higher minimum wage. By letting local communities institute higher labor standards, he said, “we can actually stop ghosting — not by punishing people who do the ghosting.”
Bills voted on in the Assembly Tuesday
All the bills passed with only Republican votes. Evers is likely to veto them if they reach his desk.
- AB-146 would bar state or local tax dollars from being used to fund guaranteed basic income programs.
- AB-147 would increase the grounds for which a person fired for misconduct can be disqualified from collecting unemployment, require DWD to audit at least half of required work searches, and give the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee a veto over future federal jobless pay enhancements, such as those provided in the first year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- AB-148 would tighten the process for people covered by Medicaid — known as BadgerCare in Wisconsin — to remain eligible for the health insurance program. Several provisions in it are not permitted under federal Medicaid regulations.
- AB-149 would deny a week’s benefit for UI recipients accused of declining a job interview, failing to respond to an employer’s job interview offer or failing to show up to an interview.
- AB-150 would change the name of “unemployment insurance” to “reemployment assistance.” The bill would require DWD to develop lists of potential jobs for each recipient, require recipients to apply for jobs on those lists and require DWD to begin drug tests for jobless pay recipients who would be cut from the program if they flunk.
- AB-151 would require all job training, placement and other workforce development programs in every state agency to be assessed based on employment statistics and earnings of program graduates as well as other metrics.
- AB-152 would directly authorize the Wisconsin Department of Administration to transfer workers across state agencies to DWD when needed to meet heightened demand to process claims.
- AB-153 would reduce the number of weeks that people could collect jobless pay based on the unemployment rate. The current time limit is 26 weeks. The bill would limit that to 14 weeks when the unemployment rate is 3.5% or less and raise it gradually, allowing 26 weeks only when unemployment is 9% or higher.
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