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Republicans reject Gov. Tony Evers call for special session to modernize state unemployment system

Republicans reject Gov. Tony Evers call for special session to modernize state unemployment system

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Republican leaders in the state Legislature have rejected Gov. Tony Evers call for a special session next week to discuss more than $5.3 million in updates to the state’s outdated unemployment system, which has struggled since March to process unprecedented claims brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evers first announced he would call for a special session in his 2021 State of the State address Tuesday. On Wednesday, he signed an executive order calling the Legislature to convene at noon Jan. 19. Evers’ administration has faced months-long criticism over its slow response to addressing the state’s backlog of unemployment claims caused by skyrocketing unemployment during the pandemic.

In a joint statement, eight Republican leaders — including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, of Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, of Oostburg — rejected Evers’ call for a special session. Republicans said the Evers administration has the power to initiate such spending without legislative approval.

“Governor Evers already has the funding and tools he needs to fix the problems at DWD,” LeMahieu said. “Now, instead of effectively using his resources, he’s scrambling to shift blame while people are still left waiting.”

A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau issued Wednesday states that Evers has some options outside of legislative action, including requesting expenditure authority from the GOP-led budget committee or prioritizing existing appropriations. However, funds in the accounts listed by GOP leaders — and access to those dollars — is limited.

During his two years in office the Democratic governor has called the Legislature into a variety of special sessions on his policy goals, but such requests have been largely ignored by Republicans who control the Legislature. Lawmakers still have to gavel in next Tuesday, in accordance with Evers’ order, but are not required to discuss or vote on the matter.

Evers’ latest proposal would appropriate more than $5.3 million to allow the state Department of Workforce Development to begin modernizing the unemployment system immediately, rather than wait for spending approval in the upcoming 2021-23 budget session.

An agency budget request filed by DWD in September lists replacing the state’s system, which uses the 60-year-old COBOL computing language, but did not include a specific funding request.

Evers said full modernization of the state’s decades-old unemployment system would cost roughly $90 million over 10 years.

“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 during his State of the State address. “No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done.”

Part of Evers’ proposal would spend $481,700 on a request for proposal process to hire consultants and choose a vendor to implement a modernization strategy.

Evers’ proposal also would include a provision that prioritizes the use of any federal dollars appropriated toward unemployment modernization and allow for the potential clawback of state dollars, should federal funds become available. Another provision would mandate electronic communications and transactions between DWD and employers and claimants, with exceptions.

In his response to Evers’ State of the State address, Vos challenged the governor’s statement that Wisconsin’s antiquated unemployment system was to blame for the backlog of claims. Rather, Vos accused Evers’ administration of “a lack of leadership” on the matter.

“Wisconsinites deserve better,” Vos said.

DWD has faced skyrocketing unemployment claims since shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began. All told, the department has processed about 9.1 million weekly unemployment claims since March 15. To compare, DWD handled 7.2 million claims between 2016 and 2019. In 2019 the department reported handling a little more than 287,000 claims.

In addition to outdated technology, DWD officials have said an unprecedented number of claims, paired with GOP-authored unemployment laws, have complicated the adjudication process and exacerbated delays.

Audits conducted last year by the the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found DWD was largely responsible for the department’s delays in resolving initial unemployment claims and that only 0.5% of the 41.1 million calls received by DWD call centers between March 15 and June 30 ultimately were answered.

Last week, the state Department of Workforce Development reported that almost 97% of the more than 8.87 million weekly unemployment claims received between March 15 and Dec. 19 of last year had been processed. At the time, more than 22,000 claimants had been waiting more than three weeks for their requests to be resolved.

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