(Photo provided)
(Photo provided)

Governor follows through on State of the State message to upgrade system that led to massive backlog, while also declaring 2021 the Year of Broadband Access in yearly speech. 

Gov. Tony Evers is calling a special legislative session for next week to address the outdated unemployment insurance system that has been the source of sharp Republican criticism for creating a backlog of more than 700,000 claims during the peak of pandemic-related job losses and prompting a cabinet-level secretary to resign.  

In a statement Wednesday, Evers said the proposed overhaul would cost roughly $90 million over the next 10 years. His bill, which the Legislature could begin debating at noon Tuesday at the start of the special session, allocates over $5.3 million to the state Department of Workforce Development. These funds would allow the department to immediately begin working toward modernizing the system, without having to wait for the upcoming budget cycle to be debated and completed later this spring. 

“No politics, no posturing,” Evers said. “Send me the bill and let’s just get it done.”

Evers said from 2016 to 2019, the Department of Workforce Development handled 7.2 million claims. Since the pandemic took hold in March, the department has received 8.8 million claims. This is 1.6 million more claims than the four previous years combined. And Vos pointed out there are still 9,000 cases in adjudication. 

In the roughly 30-minute-long speech, Evers outlined his plans for 2021. In addition to upgrading the unemployment computer system, he said he will require the Legislature to draw nonpartisan, statewide voting maps, and declared 2021 the Year of Broadband Access. He plans to include $200 million in the upcoming budget to address Wisconsin’s ranking as the 36th worst state in the country for broadband access. 

Evers outlined these goals in the first State of the State to be delivered virtually in the state’s history, due to the pandemic. Republicans still watched the speech on TV screens in their chambers. Democrats did not attend, citing the ongoing refusal of Republican leaders to require face masks in the Capitol. Evers dedicated the speech to the more than 5,000 Wisconsin residents who have died due to the coronavirus. 

The governor’s speech followed what is becoming an all too familiar stalemate between him and Assembly and Senate Republicans leaders over what to include in a COVID-19 relief bill, prompting the question of what, if anything, will be accomplished on his 2021 to-do list. 

Republicans have made little effort to take several of his previous calls for special sessions to address topics seriously by merely gaveling in and gaveling out the sessions without debating or voting on any bills. 

“I want to make myself clear: If the Legislature continues to ignore this problem—if they gavel in and gavel out like they’ve done before, if they leave the problem for another administration, another generation—the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box,” Evers said. 

Following Evers’ speech, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) delivered the Republican response. He laid blame for the unemployment backlog at the current administration’s feet, called out Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) for working with Evers on a COVID-19 compromise bill that the Senate passed earlier in the day, and touted his chamber’s upcoming work to create a vaccine rollout plan in a Thursday meeting of the Assembly Health Committee. 

“These failures weren’t brought on by an ancient system; they were brought on by a lack of leadership,” said Vos, pointing to a review from the Legislative Audit Bureau that showed cases were unnecessarily delayed due to human error as well as years of legislative austerity.

Evers said in a press release prior to his address that he would sign a newly-amended version of the COVID-19 bill passed earlier in the day by the Senate, if the Assembly passed it. The Assembly, which is not scheduled to meet again for two weeks, declined to vote on the bill Tuesday night. 

Instead, Vos said the version passed by his chamber did not turn its backs on the children who are falling behind because in-person education is determined at the whims of teachers’ unions and liberal school boards, in his view. It did not turn its backs on Wisconsin businesses who he claimed are at the mercy of public health officials who make blanket decisions to close their livelihoods. 

“We won’t allow anyone to mandate vaccinations on our citizens,” Vos continued. “And we won’t allow the executive branch to continue to fail by spending federal assistance without public input.”

He then took issue with the Senate Republicans who voted for the bill. Only Sens. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) and Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) voted against the bill.  

“It would seem, unfortunately, some would think the way to find common ground is to cave to the governor’s demands. We will continue to work to reach a consensus as equals,” said Vos. “We will never compromise our conservative ideals in the name of political expediency.”

Just how much Evers can accomplish by declaring 2021 the Year of Broadband Access also is unclear. Vos did not mention the topic of high-speed internet access in his speech. And with budget talks set to begin shortly, Evers is calling on investing $200 million in broadband expansion. This is five times the amount invested during the three previous budget cycles in 2013, 2015, and 2017, when Republicans controlled all three branches of government.  

Evers invested $54 million to broadband expansion in the last biennial budget. 

“It’s 2021 folks. Having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity,” Evers said. “Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet. Period.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 430,000 people who make up 25% of Wisconsin’s rural population lack access to high-speed internet. 

“Fixing broadband in Wisconsin is not a moon shot. It is not insurmountable,” Evers said. “But it is critical to economic development and recovery and must happen now.”

Following last year’s State of the State, Evers created the People’s Maps Commission. The nine-member commission, which includes no politicians, was tasked with creating non-partisan districts for statewide elections. It has hosted virtual meetings in each of the state’s congressional districts and will create nonpartisan maps based on 2020 Census data.

The GOP-controlled Legislature will be doing the same, as is allowed by state law. A decade ago, Republicans also controlled the Legislature. The resulting maps drawn are said to be among the most gerrymandered in the country, led to a case that went to the US Supreme Court, and prompted Evers in an end-of-year interview with UpNorthNews to cite the gerrymandered districts for ongoing gridlock at the Capitol, especially in regards to passing COVID-19 relief bills. 

This time around, Evers said his upcoming budget “is going to make sure the Legislature draws our maps in the light of day, in the public eye, and with public input by requiring public meetings for the map-drawing process.”

“Finally, and most importantly, we are going to require the Legislature to take up The People’s Maps, which will be drawn not by any political party or high-paid consultants, but by the people of our state,” Evers said. 

In a nod to the trials of 2020, Evers said “we began 2020 with our sights set high,” set to tackle the state’s dairy crisis, provide support for rural communities, and invest in public schools. But those goals that were defined in last year’s address were pushed aside when the pandemic hit and “things changed overnight.”

“Although the year is behind us,” Evers said. “The remnants and hardships of 2020 remain.”