Gov. Tony Evers during his annual State of the State address Tuesday called for a special legislative session to overhaul the state’s unemployment system and a transparent process for drawing the state’s political maps.
Many of Evers’ proposals, including $200 million for broadband infrastructure, will be included in his upcoming state budget request. But they will test an already rocky relationship with the Republican-controlled Legislature as lawmakers seek to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, many of the challenges of 2020 will no doubt carry into this new year,” Evers said. “But as we reflect on these challenges — the magnitude of what this past year presented us, and the work we did together to prepare, adapt, and respond — let us also remember to grant ourselves grace, to permit ourselves perspective, to recognize our own resilience.”
During his two years in office the Democratic governor has called the Legislature into a variety of special sessions on his policy goals, but Republicans have brushed them aside. Evers provided few details on the latest special session, which seeks to address an issue that has dogged his administration since COVID-19 caused unemployment to skyrocket.
In another sign of the pandemic’s continued effect, Evers became the first governor in 74 years to not be physically present in the Capitol to deliver his address, which he gave by video.
And in another major break from tradition, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, delivered the GOP response immediately after Evers’ address from the Assembly dais where the governor traditionally gives the speech — with GOP members in attendance applauding as they would if a Republican governor were delivering the annual address.
Then, with Democratic members not in attendance, Assembly Republicans passed a resolution honoring Vos as the longest-serving Assembly speaker in state history.
Senate Republicans watched Evers’ address from the Senate chambers, but Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, did not speak after the address.
Evers’ policy goals
Evers previewed what are likely to be some of his signature policy goals this legislative session, although he won’t announce more until his budget address next month.
Dedicating his speech to the 5,000 lives lost in Wisconsin due to COVID-19, Evers remarked upon the difficulty of the previous year, including civil unrest sparked by the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha. But he also highlighted Wisconsinites’ perseverance.
“This past year asked a lot of us, and we’ve asked a lot of one another,” Evers said. “But when we did, we found that the strength of our state is in what we are willing to face together — what we are willing to do for each other, especially when our neighbors need us the most.”
Evers’ call for an overhaul to the unemployment system comes as his administration has been ridiculed for its alarmingly slow response to addressing the state’s skyrocketing unemployment claims during the pandemic.
Last week, the state Department of Workforce Development reported that almost 97% of the more than 8.87 million weekly unemployment claims received between March 15 and Dec. 19 of last year had been processed. At the time, more than 22,000 claimants had been waiting more than three weeks for their requests to be resolved.
In his speech, Evers blamed that response on the state’s antiquated unemployment claim system, which he said was not equipped to meet the demands the pandemic presented.
“This system isn’t new, and these problems aren’t, either,” Evers said. “And Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame. The fact of the matter is that previous administrations and more than a decades’ worth of legislators have known this system was outdated and couldn’t handle an economic crisis like the one this pandemic presented, and they never took the time to fix it.”
In his rebuttal, Vos blamed the governor for a lack of leadership and inaction on the issue. He pointed to audits conducted last year by the the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which found DWD was largely responsible the department’s delays in resolving initial unemployment claims and that only 0.5% of the 41.1 million calls received by DWD call centers between March 15 and June 30 ultimately were answered.
“These failures weren’t brought on by ancient systems. They were brought on by a lack of leadership,” Vos said. “The Evers administration owes these families answers and in many cases an apology.”
Since March, DWD received 1.6 million more claims than the previous four years combined. To address those claims, the administration increased staffing in the unemployment claims division from 500 to more than 1,800, but even that wasn’t enough to fully address the problem.
“If the Legislature continues to ignore this problem — if they gavel in and gavel out like they’ve done before, if they leave this problem for another administration, another generation — the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box,” Evers said.
Evers also wants to pass a measure in his state budget that would increase transparency in the decennial redrawing of the state’s political maps by requiring public meetings during the process, preventing the Legislature from destroying related records, and requiring the Legislature to pass maps drawn by the governor’s nonpartisan redistricting commission, which he formed last year.
Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly, so it’s unlikely Evers would have the political leverage to pass the measure, which he also attempted in his 2019-21 budget proposal.
“I believe — and I know many of you at home do — that the people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” Evers said. “Wisconsinites don’t want maps that favor any political candidate or party — we just want maps where either candidate can win.”
During the last redistricting process 10 years ago, Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor’s office drew the maps in secret and sought to maximize their partisan advantage in the Legislature.
Evers also said he wants to spend $200 million more to expand broadband access in Wisconsin in the next budget, which is on top of the $54 million included in the previous budget.
According to figures provided by the administration, about 430,000 people — 25% of the state’s rural population — lack access to high-speed internet.
Vos criticizes COVID-19 bill
The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic was a major focus of Evers’ speech as well as Vos’ response, in which he called the state’s vaccine rollout “an embarrassment compared to other states” and urged residents to email the state to protest a plan that would vaccinate prisoners before many seniors.
Vos even indirectly criticized Senate Republicans, who earlier in the day passed a scaled-down COVID-19 relief package that Evers has pledged to sign.
“It seems some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave in to the governor’s demands,” Vos said.
The state Department of Health Services reported Monday that Wisconsin has administered more than 151,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including more than 11,500 booster shots, mostly to health care workers and nursing home residents. All told, the state aims to administer doses to about 550,000 people in what is considered phase 1a of Wisconsin’s vaccination plan.
In December, the state reported it had ended the most recent fiscal year with a positive balance in the general fund using a standard accounting method for the first time in at least three decades.
However, the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum reported in December the state could face the most challenging budget session in a decade this year as spending is projected to exceed revenues by about $373.1 million — without taking into account Medicaid costs and new spending requests from state agencies.
In his response, Vos said Republicans will “fight for another conservative budget, keep spending in check, continue our successful school choice programs, protect the unborn, reduce taxes even further and ensure that free speech still exists in the Badger State moving forward.”
Tell yer folks: Comedian Charlie Berens asks what it means to be from Wisconsin — and Twitter delivers
Kicking it off with class
Tyme travel truth
Hittin a tyme machine then goin to Kopp's— Latte With Extra Seth (@slazear1) January 4, 2021
Doin' the time
Jeez ... quite a list ya got there
Adding...When a 1/2” of snow falls, you feel the need to shovel it off the driveway and sidewalk - even if it’s 8:30 p.m. (And then you do your neighbors walks because you’re out shoveling anyway der hey.)— Michael (@beerdazed) January 5, 2021
Just being neighborly
Oh my freaking God, so true! Wisconsin by birth, college (@UWBadgers), & first grown-up job (@WKOW). Moved around, settled in Chicago. Since #Covid, been spending more time in #Milwaukee area and holy F#CK I forgot how friendly we are. You plow each others' drives JUST BECAUSE.— Margaret Bogenrief (@BfullyComplex) January 5, 2021
What, ya never seen snow before?
It snowed last night, gotta clear the drive before the plow snows ya in and ya gotta do it over again. Gonna get out der by 7 a.m.— TL (@CAN1SAY) January 4, 2021
Hoan sweet home
Deck the halls with tasty treats
On the way
So I says to the bartender, hey, you puttin' on the Badger game or no an he tells me I'm drunk an go home cause the Badger game is tomorrow and I says it's 1 a.m. so it is tomorrow, so he says get out and so anyways I need you to come down and help me get my car out the snowbank.— Scott K. Petersen (@ScottKPetersen) January 4, 2021
Old fashion(ed) traditions
Brandy or whiskey? Sweet or sour?Garnish or no? Nice, that’s what Grandma drinks every Christmas when we play Sheepshead. What bar are we going to after this? I know a couple with good fish fry that we could snow mobile to.— Patrick (@PTracyWisco) January 5, 2021
Sometimes ya gotta take 'er easy
I don’t feel like drinking tonight, I’ll just have a few Miller Lites.— Abby Marie (@AbbyBrueggen) January 4, 2021
Sure, queso and fromage
I didn't know the drawer was for other things. 😂— KayZ 🌿 (@wisco_wahine) January 4, 2021
Never too young to learn
Happened this morning— Eric Conn (@emconn36) January 5, 2021
My son working on his math: "9+6 is easy, I know it's 15"
Me: "How do you know that?"
Son: "Uh, because cribbage"
Fathers know best
I snowblow the curb along the road for about 30 feet before my driveway because my dad told me it keeps the snow from piling up when the plow goes through.— leprechaun kicker (@topher484) January 5, 2021
Never have, never will
Tree for one
The precious time of year I call the New Glarus trifecta. Getting Totally Naked, Spotted Cow, and Staghorn all in one sitting at the local Tavern.— Dan Haughian (@DanHaughian) January 5, 2021
Oh yeah, been there before
So to get there... you drive about 20 minutes down Cty trunk T then ya turn right at the big red barn. 🧀 If ya cross the railroad tracks, ya’ve gone too far.— Renee Zemlock (@RZemlock) January 5, 2021
No curds for you!
No! Not cheese nuggets or cheese balls. Cheese curds! They are called cheese curds. Just give me back the bag. You don't deserve them.— Dawn Wise (@DawnWis21183907) January 4, 2021
I'm getting pretty drunk I'm gonna switch over to beer— floppy monopoly (@thedjjasper) January 5, 2021
It's a sacred right
Looking forward to the Lenten fish frys in Church basements, served with rye bread and a can of beer.— BSF (@UpNortWI) January 4, 2021
Always be prepared
I have both Korbel and Kessler’s in my cupboard.— Ann Elizabeth J.D. (@annelizabeth67) January 4, 2021
And we turned out (mostly) OK
When I was a kid, my parents would play bar dice or cards with my aunts and uncles. We could earn quarters by fetching beers, making drinks or giving back rubs.— KayZ 🌿 (@wisco_wahine) January 5, 2021
Forget your foutains!
Livin' the dream
I get most of my meat from the meat raffle down at the Decoy while drinking Budweiser and shots of Jack.— John Spaight (@JohnSpaight) January 5, 2021
At the same time, right?
I eat handfuls of cheese for a snack and say “ope, lemme squeeze right past you there”— Kyah (@kyah_quast) January 5, 2021
Oh, thanks anyway
We were in Iceland in a snowstorm and cars were in the ditch. I told my brother, we are the kind of people who push cars out of the ditch so we did. The tow truck gets there and there is no one to tow! He kinda looked made. "Hey, tell your folks I say hey!"— Schmern (@schmern) January 4, 2021
There's no place like home
Walked into Total Wine here in AZ and asked “do you have any Tom N Jerry Mix or no?— Cactus Pete ⚪️ (@Real_CactusPete) January 5, 2021
They did not and said maybe Best Buy has them on DVD.
Oh no, yeah I know him
Ah, it's just a dusting
Aw jeez. It’s only 5 inches and pretty dry, there. Tell Ma to grab the shovels.— Paul Bitzan (@PBitzan) January 4, 2021
Anyone can pronounce 'Oconomowoc'
I can pronounce Chequamegon without thinking about it— mk mitty (@emkaymitty) January 5, 2021
Just one more for now
Cripes I could go for a couple three brats right now. Need another brew or you good?— Jimi in Madsconsin 🤘😷 (@UncleLeaver) January 4, 2021
Learning life's greatest lessons
"Students, enjoy your week off for deer season"— Alan Blakstad (@apblakstad) January 4, 2021
Where'd the time go?
Let's stop for one— JustABitOutside1 (@BitOutside1) January 4, 2021
(then staying till 2) - 2am that is.
Yeah no I'm good
I'm heading into Dickeyville, ya need anything or no?— Renata (they/them) 🏳️🌈 (@RenataKaizen) January 4, 2021
It's the only way
Beer chaser with a Bloody Mary— Taunya Lynne (@earlscowgirl) January 4, 2021
Hitting the big time
I saved up my babysitting money to go to the mall in Eau Claire.— Laurel_Volk (@Laurel_Volk) January 4, 2021
Oh great, now I'm hungry again
Beer cheese soup with a side of cheese curds and a tap beer— featherplus (@featherplus68) January 5, 2021
'Tis the season
Hey, I see you tossed out your Christmas tree. You gonna keep it? Cause if yer not, I’d take it, gonna have a fire later if you wanna come over for one?— Benny (@brock331) January 4, 2021
... when you got a minute
C’mere once— Alex J. (@borealwoods) January 5, 2021
Gotta get home in time for kickoff!
You gonna get hot ham ‘n rolls on Sunday, er no?— Jessica Koth (@JessicaKoth) January 5, 2021