Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a news conference Aug. 8, 2023, in Milwaukee, announcing his call for a special session of the state Legislature to add four previously discarded proposals in the 2023-25 state budget. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
This report has been updated
Amid mounting concern about rising child care tuition, shortages of child care workers and providers announcing their centers are closing, Gov. Tony Evers issued a call Tuesday for the Legislature to come back into a special session and “finish your work on the 2023-25 biennial budget, and pass a comprehensive plan to address our state’s chronic workforce challenges.”
Evers announced his call for a special session at a news conference Tuesday morning in the parking lot outside a child care center on the northwest side of Milwaukee, but the scope of the agenda he announced goes well beyond the struggles child care providers say have been escalating in the last few months.
The governor scheduled the special session for Sept. 20, leaving a window of nearly six weeks for supporters of the proposal to make the case to skeptical Republicans who control both houses of the Legislature.
His proposal resuscitates major provisions that he proposed in February and that the Republican leaders of the Legislature scrapped before handing him their rewrite of the budget, which he signed with partial vetoes on July 5.
“Despite the benefit of the largest surplus in the state’s history, Republicans rejected much of my workforce plan, all without providing any real justification, any kind of substantive debate or any meaningful alternative of their own,” Evers said.
Citing his “strategic line-item vetoes in the budget, I’ve ensured ample state resources — about four billion dollars,” he said. “They’re readily available for the Legislature to do the right thing.”
Evers’ initiative includes four broad proposals:
- $365 million in child care support, continuing stabilization grants that helped sustain the state’s child care services over the last two years. That also includes $22 million to continue a related child care support program, subsidizing employers who in turn cover child care costs for their employees.
- $243 million to kickstart a paid family leave program for new parents and for workers who need to take time off to care for a family member. The program is intended to be self-sustaining through a payroll tax, analogous to the unemployment insurance system, according to the administration.
- $120 million in additional higher education funding, including $66 million for the University of Wisconsin system and $40 million for the Wisconsin technical college system and funds for grants aimed at making college more affordable. Evers noted that UW Oshkosh announced last week plans to lay off or furlough employees to cut $18 million from the university’s budget.
- $100 million to continue funding for a series of workforce development programs begun during the pandemic with federal pandemic relief funds.
Democratic lawmakers said after the announcement that they hoped constituents, particularly in Republican-majority districts, would prevail on their legislators to sign on to the governor’s proposals instead of ignoring them as in the past.
“I’m confident that the Republicans are hearing from child care providers, families and businesses,” said Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), who attended Evers’ news conference along with other Democratic senators and representatives. “Because they’re also contacting our office and letting us know, [saying] ‘I don’t live in your district. I’m not one of your constituents. But this is something that’s important to me.’”
Vos gives thumbs down
In a statement issued barely an hour after Evers’ press conference, however, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) dismissed the special session as a “stunt” and the proposals as “nothing more than a rehash of Tony Evers’ tax and spend budget.”
In his statement, Vos repeated past Republican talking points that pandemic aid, including support that helped sustain the child care sector during the pandemic, drove recent record bouts of inflation.
Vos said the Republicans’ priority when the Legislature comes back into session after Labor Day would be to try to restore a tax cut that Evers deleted with his partial veto when he signed the budget.
(That cut, on taxes paid on incomes ranging from $27,630 for single filers to $405,550, would have saved taxpayers with incomes of $50,000 per year about $88 annually and those with incomes of $300,000 per year about $3,000 annually, on average, according to a projection from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.)
Evers framed his proposed measures collectively as addressing a collection of workforce-related challenges that Wisconsin has been facing for years, but especially acutely since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With already historically low unemployment and high workforce participation in the shrinking labor pool, Wisconsin small businesses, farmers, producers, hospitals and health care sectors, schools and other critical employers and industries continue to face significant generational challenges filling available jobs,” Evers said.
“Republicans have offered no real comprehensive plan to address our state’s workforce challenges,” he added. “Truly addressing these long-standing challenges must include efforts to ensure workers who are already working and are part of the workforce can remain in the workforce. They must include targeted investments to bolster key industries and sectors facing significant challenges. And they must include initiatives to ensure Wisconsin can be competitive in retaining and recruiting a talented workforce.”
Democrats say need is urgent
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said Evers’ proposals would help keep more young adults who grew up in Wisconsin in the state as they begin their working lives, addressing both the loss of more than 100,000 under-20-year-olds in the last decade as well as the projected loss of 130,000 working-age Wisconsinites in between now and 2030.
“Pro-family policies like paid family leave aren’t just policies to benefit our working families,” Johnson said. “They are also policies to benefit our employers and their businesses.”
Johnson, Evers and Amy Pechacek, secretary designee for the Department of Workforce Development, all cited polling data that found 73% of Wisconsin voters surveyed favored paid family leave for new parents in the workforce, including 61% of Republicans.
In calling a special session of the Legislature — a tactic Evers has sought to employ numerous times since first taking office in 2019 — the governor acknowledged that the Republican leaders of both houses have repeatedly snubbed those previous special session calls.
Democratic lawmakers said in interviews that they, too, were aware of that history, but that the urgency of the current situation could make a difference.
During the Joint Finance Committee’s listening sessions in the spring before members met to rewrite the budget, “We heard from people at every hearing throughout the state that this was a primary need, and I’ve heard from my local providers and families and people in Kenosha as well, that is a big need,” said Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha), one of four Democrats on the 16-member budget committee.
“We have to continue to push” on child care, McGuire said. “It’s so important. It’s so critical that not calling a special session would be absolutely wrong. This is something that people need and so we have to continue to push this.”
Johnson acknowledged the GOP lawmakers’ past rejection of the child care measure and other proposals Evers is making.
“I think that’s the disheartening, most frustrating thing, is that we put proposals together that are family friendly. But then when Republicans deny those opportunities, they blame it on Democrats,” she said.
“What makes us think that this is going to be different this time is because we have child care providers that are closing in their districts,” she said of GOP lawmakers. “They have residents and constituents that are complaining about unaffordable and lack of quality child care.”
As licensed and certified child care centers close, they will be replaced by “unregulated care, which makes it unsafe for everyone,” Johnson said. “And so it is in my colleagues’ best interest to take heed to this, to make this a priority for them.”
Evers made clear his intention to blame the Republican majority if the agenda isn’t addressed.
“I would bet there are some folks out there who will ask why this special session will be any different,” when the GOP leaders gaveled in and out of sessions without taking any other action, he said.
“Here’s why,” he continued. “I know that Republicans do not want to be responsible for farmers, hospitals, schools and other businesses in their district not being able to find workers because parents can’t find care for their kids,” he said. “They don’t want … to be responsible for campuses that support local communities and drive local economies laying off hundreds of people.”
The demographic challenges at the root of many of the state’s workforce difficulties aren’t new, he said, but he argued that if his proposals don’t lead to a change in the Legislature’s response, they will persist.
“These challenges that have plagued our state for generations will continue holding our families, our economy and our state back if the Republicans in the Legislature don’t take seriously this second chance,” Evers said. “There will not be bipartisan responsibility for any inaction: The consequences are theirs.”
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