Senate passes bill to start unemployment fix as Evers signals his OK

    Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs, Florida, in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
    Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs, Florida, in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

    The state Senate passed a compromise bill Thursday that would start a massive technology overhaul to the Wisconsin unemployment insurance system as Gov. Tony Evers signaled he would support the deal.

    The bill — cobbled together in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee from a draft that Evers proposed last month — authorizes the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD) to issue a request-for-proposal to replace a computer system running on software that is more than 40 years old.

    The Evers administration has blamed the outdated software for many of the delays that hobbled the unemployment system after a surge of claims in the months after the COVID-19 pandemic started, forcing many businesses to close their doors for a time.

    The bill also revives a series of other measures that Evers has endorsed and were in the Legislature’s COVID-19 response bill introduced in January. After accepting a Senate compromise in that legislation, Evers vetoed it following the Assembly’s addition of amendments that the governor said would hobble public health efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.

    Before passing the legislation Thursday 27-3, the Senate rejected Democratic amendments that would have incorporated funding for the computer upgrade project from the start. The administration will have to go back to the Joint Finance Committee for funds as the project gets underway.

    Even as Senate members acted Thursday on the bipartisan compromise that the combined UI and COVID-19 response legislation represented, partisan sniping has continued. Republican lawmakers have blasted Evers for mismanaging the unemployment crisis, while Democrats retaliated with reminders that a delay in acting last spring cost the state $25 million in federal help to cover unemployment pay.

    In a statement after the Senate vote, Evers offered muted appreciation.

    “While I wish the Legislature would have provided the funding we asked for that we need to fix this system once and for all, I’m glad the Legislature is finally taking this issue seriously after years of inaction,” Evers stated. “It’s not enough, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.”

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    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.