Republicans on Wednesday rejected Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal to spend $15 million on Wisconsin’s outdated unemployment benefits system, which struggled to get payments to workers as the COVID-19 pandemic cratered the economy and continues to falter.
Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee also rejected for the second time a Democratic proposal to legalize medical marijuana in the state as well as a measure that would have spent $40 million to replace lead pipes.
The GOP-authored budget for the Department of Workforce Development passed 12-4 along party lines Wednesday and would reinstate drug-testing requirements for some individuals on unemployment benefits.
It also would direct the department to study converting the state’s unemployment system to one that adjusts the number of weeks a claimant would be eligible for benefits based on the state’s unemployment rate. The study would examine other changes to the unemployment system to provide incentives to find and keep employment.
“We’ve got to get folks back into the workforce, that’s one of the most important things facing us right now,” said committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.
Evers’ proposal to spend $15 million on the state’s outdated unemployment system would have included an additional $15 million in 2023 to supplement unemployment system administrative costs.
The state’s unemployment rate has dipped to near pre-pandemic levels, but the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported in budget papers issued this month that delays in adjudicating claims have persisted.
Claimants with benefit eligibility issues waited an average of two weeks during the week ending May 15 before being scheduled for adjudication, compared with just nine days during the week ending March 6. The average wait time for processing an appeal increased from 74 days to 78 in that same time span.
The state has estimated upgrades to the department’s decades-old unemployment system, which officials have attributed to delays in processing claims that skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, would cost at least $80 million. Evers had requested funding in the budget to cover those costs, but the item was stripped by Republicans during the first day of budget deliberations last month.
“This system wasn’t just faulty with the Evers’ administration, it’s been faulty for years,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee.
Echoing comments Republicans on the budget committee have said since budget deliberations began, Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, said Evers could use federal stimulus funds to address unemployment system upgrades or other items removed from the governor’s budget.
“We can’t keep turning a blind eye to these federal dollars,” Zimmerman said.
The committee also voted along party lines to eliminate Evers’ proposal to spend $40 million to replace lead water pipes.
The GOP budget does include $145,100 in one-time funding to acquire body cameras for the state Department of Natural Resources law enforcement. It also includes $174,100 in annual funding for data storage.
The GOP-led committee also approved a roughly $4.3 million increase to the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s budget. Republicans rejected a Democratic proposal for a more than $35 million increase, including a measure to legalize medical marijuana in the state.
Republicans had already removed marijuana legalization from the state budget last month when they stripped hundreds of items Evers had proposed. Democratic members on Wednesday tried to provide the state agriculture department about $185,000 in annual funding to regulate medical marijuana, but the measure was again rejected.
The GOP budget would also provide $400,000 over the biennium to create grant programs for both meat and dairy processors, for a total of $800,000 over the two-year budget. The proposal also includes about $525,000 over the biennium to add four meat inspector positions at the department.
Another item in the budget would direct the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to submit a plan to the budget committee for spending $5 million over five years to increase Wisconsin’s exports of dairy, meat, poultry and other agricultural products by 25% by 2026.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, committee co-chairs Born and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said there are no changes planned to the GOP budget following comments made earlier this week by Evers that he might veto the entire proposal.
“Nothing really changes from last week,” Born said.
Evers on Tuesday said he was keeping a full veto of the GOP-authored budget on the table if Republicans don’t allocate enough education funding to qualify for federal stimulus dollars.
The $128 million in K-12 funding in the GOP budget proposal isn’t enough to qualify for the full $1.5 billion in education funds in the latest stimulus package. In order to qualify, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the state would need to increase the funding from the current budget by at least $387 million over the next two years.
Republicans last week also allocated $350 million in their budget to the state’s rainy day fund that could be directed toward education spending, but there’s no guarantee those funds would go to that use. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education said simply putting that money aside won’t help qualify the state for federal education funds if it’s not directed toward K-12 education.
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