MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday called a special legislative session for next week on his new plan to upgrade the state's unemployment benefits system in the face of a massive backlog of pandemic-induced claims.
The governor announced the effort to upgrade the system during his State of the State speech on Tuesday evening. He introduced a bill Wednesday morning that calls for the state Department of Workforce Development to conduct all transactions electronically and hands the agency $5.3 million to renovate and modernize the claims system. He also issued an executive order calling for lawmakers to take up the bill in a special session beginning at noon on Jan. 19.
The Democrat has sustained heavy criticism from Republicans for months over the DWD's inability to process a massive backlog of unemployment claims sparked by coronavirus pandemic-related layoffs that left some people waiting for months for payouts. The criticism has grown so intense that Evers requested that DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman resign in September. Frostman agreed to leave.
Evers blamed an antiquated processing system for the backlog during his speech and attacked his "predecessors" and lawmakers both past and present for not upgrading the system sooner.
"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 in his speech. "No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let's just get it done."
Republican legislative leaders have all but ignored Evers' special session calls in the past, including on gun control measures and criminal justice reform, by gaveling in and gaveling out in seconds.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday evening in the official Republican response to Evers' speech that thousands of people are still waiting for their unemployment checks and the governor's administration owes them an apology.
He didn't comment directly on the special session call, though. His spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, didn't immediately respond to an email Wednesday morning. Adam Gibbs, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, also didn't immediately respond to an email.