Evers targets Wisconsin’s unemployment system in new special session order

The governor called the current system ‘outdated.’
Published: Jan. 13, 2021 at 9:34 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 13, 2021 at 4:33 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Gov. Tony Evers wants state lawmakers to focus on fixing what he described as the state’s “broken unemployment system” when they meet for a special session next week.

Evers signed the executive order mandating the special session Wednesday morning, directing legislators to meet at noon on Wednesday. He also rolled out his own proposal for updating how the unemployment system works in Wisconsin.

“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. No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done,” the governor wrote in a statement announcing the order.

While legislative Republicans did not criticize the special session, they blasted Evers for his handling of the problems faced by the Dept. of Workforce Development (DWD) so far, with Beaver Dam Assembly member Rep. Mark Born calling the order “political grandstanding.”

“Governor Evers has had the ability to initiate an IT system upgrade at any time over the past two years,” argued Born, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Finance. “This is just another example of failed leadership and finger pointing that has harmed tens of thousands of the unemployed across Wisconsin.”

Soon after the pandemic gripped Wisconsin, DWD began accumulating a backlog of new cases it is only beginning to clear. Evers statement on the new session noted the number of claims since March totaled 8.8 million, exceeding both the previous four years (2016-2019) combined as well as the number filed during the Great Recession a decade ago.

Evers’ plan sets aside more than $5 million for DWD to begin modernizing a system that was still using COBOL, an outdated coding language, for its computer system as claims piled up. It also has proposals for using electronic transfers for transactions and records, saying it will allow for more efficient communication between claimants, employers, and other entities.

In all, he expects it would take $90 million over the next 10 years to completely modernize DWD’s systems.

Republicans pointed to a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that lists appropriates it says Evers could make right now that would help DWD begin the process of upgrading its systems.

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

The joint statement by many of the top Republicans in the Assembly and Senate also contended Evers’ predecessor Republican Gov. Scott Walker led an effort to enhance the online filing system, noting that by 2018 nearly all initial and weekly claims are filed online.

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