Extending a two-year trend, legislative Republicans on Tuesday refused to take up discussion on updates to the state’s unemployment system in a special session called by Gov. Tony Evers — bringing into question whether such sessions provide much more than political theater under divided government.
Evers has called the Legislature into seven special sessions since taking office a little more than two years ago on matters ranging from gun control to pandemic-related adjustments to last year’s spring election. Republicans who control the Senate and Assembly have largely ignored Evers’ requests and none of the Democratic governor’s special sessions have directly resulted in legislation.
To compare, of the 97 special sessions held in Wisconsin before Evers took office, only a dozen adjourned without resulting in legislation. In four of those 12 sessions, the Legislature carried out other actions requested by the governor, such as confirming executive appointments or adopting joint resolutions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.
“The recent practice of opening special sessions but not convening as a full body to debate or to vote may mark a new trend in special sessions under divided government,” Madeline Kasper, coordinating legislative analyst with LRB, said in an email.
Six of Evers’ special sessions were called in his first two years in office — the most of any governor in a single biennium since the 1985 session, when a total of eight were called, according to LRB.
However, split government hasn’t always been the cause for a failed special session. According to a LRB report from September 2019, three recent special sessions called for under single-party government — two by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2009 and one by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018 — also failed to result in legislation.
Under the Wisconsin Constitution, the governor has the authority to call a special session of the Legislature and define the session’s intended purpose.
The use of special sessions in Wisconsin dates to the 1800s, when the Legislature only met in regular session for a few months, and allowed the governor to reconvene the Legislature to take up urgent matters. While the Legislature now remains in continuous regular session, the governor maintains the power to call for a special session.
While special sessions offer the governor an avenue to seek legislative action on specific policy goals and lawmakers have to gavel in when such a session is called, the Legislature is not required to discuss or vote on any issue. Lawmakers also have the ability to make amendments to legislation proposed by the governor.
Republicans gaveled out of some of Evers’ special sessions immediately, while others remained open until lawmakers eventually gaveled out months later.
“The governor has used his ability to call special sessions on issues that the people of our state care about and have broad public support,” Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said. “He is going to continue to press the Legislature to take up issues that Wisconsinites care about.”
The Legislature also has the power to call for an extraordinary session, which can be convened without the governor’s approval.
“It is remarkable how little legislating the Legislature has done over the past year,” Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor, said in an email. “As Governor Evers points out, the Legislature has not actually passed any legislation and sent it to his desk since last April, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the economy and the election. Legislative leaders and their allies have instead been active in the courts, challenging many of the orders and actions coming out of the Evers administration.”
On Tuesday, the GOP-led Legislature gaveled in and immediately adjourned Evers’ seventh special session on the Democratic governor’s proposal to spend more than $5.3 million on updates to the state’s outdated unemployment system, which has struggled since March to process an unprecedented number of claims brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both chambers met separately in what is known as a “skeletal session,” which does not include formal discussion or full attendance by lawmakers, and adjourned until Thursday.
“So what is their plan? Republicans say their constituents are struggling with lagging payments from an antiquated system, but then refuse to take action on measures that would help address the problem,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said in a statement. “Choosing to play politics and point fingers at Governor Evers at the expense of helping those who are struggling with the economic fallout from the pandemic is unacceptable.”
In a statement issued after the session, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, described the governor’s request as “a headline-baiting special session in an effort to distract from the failures of his Department of Workforce Development.”
“What today’s special session illustrates is yet another instance of failed leadership by Governor Evers,” Steineke said. “Instead of using his office and the existing tools at his disposal to lead, our governor has shown yet again he prefers a scoop and shovel approach to problem solving.”
Evers’ request for $5.3 million would allow DWD to begin modernizing the unemployment system immediately, rather than wait for spending approval in the upcoming 2021-23 budget session, but the request was almost immediately rejected by GOP leaders, who said the Evers administration can initiate such spending without legislative approval.
A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau states that Evers has some options outside of legislative action, including requesting expenditure authority from the GOP-led budget committee or prioritizing existing appropriations, but several of the proposed accounts do not have the funds necessary to address Evers’ request, while one has an $85 million liability. Evers has said full modernization of the state’s decades-old unemployment system would cost roughly $90 million over 10 years.
All told, DWD has processed about 9.1 million weekly unemployment claims since March 15, compared with 7.2 million claims between 2016 and 2019. Skyrocketing unemployment claims caused by the pandemic created a backlog at DWD, causing some residents to wait months before their claims were processed and paid.
State Republicans have blamed the backlog on a lack of leadership from the Evers’ administration, while the governor and DWD officials have said the unprecedented number of claims, an antiquated unemployment system and GOP-authored unemployment laws have complicated the adjudication process and exacerbated delays.