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Wisconsin Assembly sends unemployment bill to Gov. Tony Evers

Wisconsin Assembly sends unemployment bill to Gov. Tony Evers

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The Wisconsin state Assembly chamber. 

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Lawmakers have approved a bill to get the ball rolling on updating Wisconsin's antiquated unemployment insurance system — but without the state funding Gov. Tony Evers initially sought.

Still, the Democratic governor previously signaled he would sign the legislation into law, even as he lamented the exclusion of $5.3 million for the renovation and modernization of a system that has come under renewed scrutiny with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic here last spring.

“It's not enough, but it’s at least a step in the right direction," Evers said last week of the bill.

The plan doesn't provide state dollars immediately for the effort to fix the IT infrastructure, as Evers demanded in a mid-January special session call that Republicans initially dismissed. Rather, the GOP-amended proposal would direct the Department of Workforce Development to "seek and exhaust any federal funding available" first, before returning to the Legislature's powerful budget committee for additional revenue.

[Gov. Tony Evers signs business tax cut bill]

The agency would then need to get approval from the Legislature's powerful budget committee to start the upgrade process and secure funding for the effort that's expected to cost around $80 million and has exhibited problems for decades.

The state's unemployment system was thrown into the spotlight in the last year by the influx of unemployment claims over the course of the coronavirus crisis.

While Evers had placed blame on the existing system for the subsequent backlog in resolving those claims, and later fired his former DWD secretary for not moving quickly enough to address the pile-up, legislative Republicans have criticized DWD and Evers for failing to do more to respond.

That criticism was something top GOP officials repeated Tuesday ahead of the Assembly's 89-0 vote to approve the legislation, which they touted as a "simple and easy roadmap for the governor" to follow.

"There have been many missed opportunities and a lack of urgency by the Evers administration to address many of the issues of unemployment insurance that we have seen through the pandemic," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters.

But Democrats, who proposed three amendments to the legislation that were all shot down, countered Republicans should have acted sooner and knocked them for enacting things like the one-week waiting period for unemployed individuals to collect benefits in the first place.

"You guys can try to spin this and try to play politics with something like unemployment insurance but it's cynical and it's contrary to what we're here to do today," Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said on the floor.

Beyond the upgrades, the Republican-drafted amendment includes a handful of other measures that would provide liability protection for businesses and others tied to COVID-related claims and again waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, among other things.

The liability portion is similar to language that were included in the Republicans' COVID-19 bill that Evers vetoed earlier this month. Initially a broad blanket protection, Senate GOP leadership later amended the provision to tighten up those  protections for businesses, associations, schools, employers, workers and others tied to any COVID-19-related claims.

Meanwhile, the state in its first and only COVID relief bill last spring opted to waive the Republican-instituted one-week waiting period to collect unemployment for workers who have been laid off. But that suspension ended Feb. 7, though the COVID bill Evers vetoed would've extended it to mid-March.

Without it, the state has lost out on a total of $2.6 million in enhanced federal matching dollars, or $1.3 million each week, which covers half the cost of providing the first week's worth of unemployment benefits to qualifying individuals. Further, those who have been laid off aren't able to claim all 26 weeks' worth of unemployment benefits because of the waiting period, meaning they effectively get one fewer payment. 

The bill would extend the waiting period suspension to March 14.

[Finance committee to tackle Evers’ budget in person; public hearings around state in question]

The legislation passed the state Senate last week with bipartisan support, a day after the Joint Finance Committee amended it.

In the last week, Evers has signed three other bills into law for the session, including one that allows pharmacy technicians to administer vaccines, as well as pharmacy students who meet certain requirements and are supervised by a health care provider when administering the shots.

Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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