Joint Finance Committee co-chair Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) discusses the Republicans’ budget plan for occupational licensing. (Screenshot | WisEye)
Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee agreed Thursday to let the state hire more staff to reduce chronic delays in issuing professional licenses, but specified that they would be temporary employees, not permanent ones.
While reducing Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget for additional staff, the legislators agreed to fully fund his technology request for the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS), which administers Wisconsin’s occupational licensing program.
In addition to DSPS, Thursday’s session of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) established budgets for the Departments of Justice, Corrections and Administration. Among the key items approved were a $15.3 million per year increase for projected overtime for prison employees in the Department of Corrections (DOC) and a total $14.1 million increase in the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The DOJ budget includes adding three state crime lab employees for toxicology and DNA testing in the second year of the budget, replacing pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that will expire at the end of 2024.
The budgeted amount will pay for fewer than the 16 positions that Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat, requested, including during a news conference in Madison this week alongside his campaign rival in last fall’s election, Republican Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney.
The DOC budget approved Thursday does not include prospective wage increases for corrections employees, said JFC co-chairs Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green). Those are planned for the end of the budget drafting process, when general wages for state employees are determined.
With each department, JFC Democrats made a pitch for committing state funds in the amounts and for the priorities that Evers proposed in February. After the Democrats’ proposals were rejected on a 4-11 vote, each of the Republicans’ budget motions for the same departments passed on an 11-4 vote.
Funding for DSPS was the most contentious issue in the 90-minute budget session, a day after an even more contentious Assembly debate over bills that Republicans said would streamline the occupational licensing system but Democrats and DSPS said would add to the agency’s costs and workload without providing additional support.
Republicans have been criticizing growing delays in the licensing operation for more than a year, while defenders of DSPS say it has been hobbled by the Legislature’s refusal to add staff commensurate with its increased workload.
Evers has sought to add personnel to the department in every budget he’s submitted, but Republicans who make up the majority in the Legislature have rejected his requests, granting only limited increases. The department is funded primarily through licensing fees, but its staff size is subject to the Legislature’s approval.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) urged a vote for the Democrats’ proposal, which would add more than 40 staff at DSPS including 16 additional people in license processing.
“This department has revenue, over $30 million for the last two budgets,” Johnson said. “They have asked us to fund an additional 36 positions [in those budgets]. And over the last two budgets, we have given them 11.”
After rejecting the Democrats’ DSPS proposal, a $35 million boost to the agency, the JFC Republicans unveiled theirs, clocking in at $22 million
All three versions — from Evers, from the Democrats, and from the Republicans — included $4.4 million for an upgrade to the license application processing software that the department began using after Evers directed some of the state’s ARPA money to the agency for that purpose. DSPS officials have credited the switch with helping them improve their license processing time and capacity.
Marklein said that the Republican proposal also adds 18 positions overall to the department. Seven of those positions are in license processing and six are to the customer service call center staff for the agency. All of them are either two- or four-year project positions rather than permanent state jobs.
Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said that choice was at odds with the complaints that GOP lawmakers have made about the agency’s struggles as well as the improvements that DSPS has been making. “You own any issues forward” with DSPS’s licensing division, he said.
Rep Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) defended the decision. With the technology, “we should expect them to perform better with fewer people,” he said, and adding employees temporarily would keep the agency from getting “locked in” with a larger staff than it might turn out to need once the new software was fully in operation.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic,” Zimmerman said. “Let’s see how folks do and the progress that I’m expecting they’ll make, and then we will not have overcorrected.”
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) retorted, “It’s not our job to hope. It’s our job to make other people’s hopes a reality.”
Born endorsed other GOP defenses of the plan. He and Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) noted that an audit is underway for DSPS that may show ways for the agency to improve.
The agency’s new secretary, Dan Hereth, who was appointed last year, has made improvements after the department’s previous “leadership was failing us a great deal,” Born said. “My hope, I guess, is that the Department of Safety and Professional Services gets their s – – – together.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.