Evers renews call for lawmakers to act on Unemployment Insurance system overhaul

    Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (WisEye)
    Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (WisEye)

    Gov. Tony Evers urged the Legislature Thursday to stop sitting on his proposal to update the state’s beleaguered unemployment insurance (UI) system.

    GOP legislative leaders have ignored the governor’s special session call to pass bills to fix the system, gaveling in Jan. 19 and adjourning without action. Evers has proposed legislation to modernize the system at an initial cost of $5.3 million. The full rehab would require a 10-year project with a potential cost of $90 million.

    The project would replace the state’s computer system for processing UI claims, which runs on software that dates back a half-century, according to the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). The Evers administration and Democrats in the Legislature have pointed to that technological challenge as one of the primary reasons that the UI system became overwhelmed when flooded with claims early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican lawmakers have minimized the role of the computer system in contributing to the claims delays, instead alleging that better management alone would have prevented them.

    After the special session call, instead of taking up on Evers’ proposed legislation, Republican leaders have been claiming that the governor could act unilaterally to implement his proposed solution.

    In a television interview aired Jan. 17, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) asserted that Evers “has all the flexibility to find the money necessary to complete what he wants to complete on this.”

    A fact-check published Wednesday by PolitiFact called that statement “Mostly false.” “It’s clear funds will need to be set aside across multiple years. And the way to approve such ongoing funding is through the budget — which must pass the Legislature,” the PolitiFact article stated.

    In his letter to the Legislature Thursday, Evers quoted that passage. “In light of this, I am hopeful these findings will inspire immediate and bipartisan legislative action that this problem deserves,” the governor wrote. He noted that the problems with the system were raised in the Great Recession of 2008, only to surface again in the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that “it would be callous and irresponsible for any elected official to sit around and wait for the next economic crisis while taking no action to remedy a predictable outcome.”

    Evers continued: “Replacing this system will take years, that’s why it should have been done years ago, and it’s why I am urging you today to give this issue immediate consideration and action and to send me a clean bill on modernization. I believe — and I sure hope you would agree — that this time Wisconsinites deserve better than getting the runaround. This problem and the people we serve cannot and should not have to wait. Again. And here’s the bottom line: I don’t care who gets the credit, I just want to get it done.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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.