Updated 1/13/2021, 4:25 PM
Making good on one of his State of the State promises, Gov. Tony Evers unveiled bills Wednesday to revamp the state’s beleaguered unemployment insurance system and issued an executive order calling for a special session of the Legislature to begin on Tuesday, Jan. 19.
But Republican leaders in the state Legislature dismissed the special session call and accusing Evers of “shifting blame and playing politics” in the words of a joint statement issued later in the day.
The draft legislation Evers submitted Wednesday calls for a $5.3 million appropriation to begin updating the unemployment insurance (UI) computer system at the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). The funds include $481,700 to cover the cost of a request for proposal that the administration would use to hire consultants and choose a vendor for the upgrade, while the rest would be used to cover initial lease payments for a new system.
The bill also calls for expanding the use of online channels for employers to file unemployment insurance tax payments and to exchange paperwork with DWD.
In a statement, the governor’s office said the bill was introduced and the special session called now so that work on the upgrades could start “immediately” instead of having to wait for the budget process later this year.
Tuesday evening in his annual State of the State message, Evers declared that he intended to call the special session. “We know that replacing this system will take years — that’s why it should’ve been done sooner, but it’s also why we now have not another moment to waste,” Evers said in the speech. “No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done.”
The state’s UI system — and the administration’s handling of it — have been under fire since early in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when a crush of claims from displaced workers left tens of thousands facing long delays in getting their funds.
Since March, the state has reported 8.8 million claims for unemployment compensation — more than four times the average number of claims annually over the previous four years. DWD staffing to handle claims more than tripled in that time.
Republican lawmakers blamed the surging backlog of claims on what they contended was mismanagement by the administration. Democrats and the administration countered that years of Republican laws that made the system more complicated and imposed new barriers to jobless claims were a major part of the problem, along with a computer system that was decades old.
As the complaints mounted, Evers fired his first DWD secretary, Caleb Frostman, in September, appointing Amy Pechacek as interim leader. Pechasek announced Dec. 30 that the initial backlog had been cleared, and Evers named her as the department’s new secretary.
Evers threatened in his speech that if they did so with this session they would pay in the next election. Speaker Robin Vos focused much of his State of the State response speech on blaming Evers for mishandling the delayed claims.
In a statement late Wednesday afternoon, Vos, along with other Republican leaders in the Assembly and the state Senate, declared that a special session was unnecessary. They accompanied the statement with a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo that they said showed Evers can act without the Legislature’s input to make the IT upgrades he called for.
“Governor Evers continues to cast blame on others and accepts little fault himself,” Vos stated. “We are always open to passing necessary legislation, but unfortunately, this Special Session call is about politics; not about policy.”
The tone of the letter — signed by Vos along with Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostberg) and other Republican lawmakers — suggested that, as they have in the past, the GOP leaders would essentially ignore the special session call as they have several times in the past, when they gaveled in and out without action.