Gov. Tony Evers, delivering Wisconsin’s first virtual State of the State, announced tonight he will call the Legislature into special session to take up legislation to modernize the unemployment system after a backlog of claims plagued his administration for much of the past year.
Evers also declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access,” promising to include another $200 million to help provide access to high-speed Internet to more corners of the state.
And he pledged to put the squeeze on GOP lawmakers in the upcoming redistricting process with a provision in his state budget that would require them to draw “our maps in the light of day, in the public eye, and with public input by requiring public meetings for the map-drawing process.” Evers is expected to veto the maps Republicans draw with the courts most likely having final say in what the state’s political boundaries look like for a decade.
Rather than standing before the Assembly chamber to address a joint session of the Legislature, Evers delivered the annual speech — his third — via his YouTube channel and Facebook. Evers sought to make light of the unusual circumstance created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“That means there’s good news and bad news: the bad news is there won’t be any applause or boos here tonight, but the good news is that means tonight’s speech will take a heckuva lot less time and since you’re watching at home, you can be as rowdy as you’d like from the comfort of your couch,” said Evers, who spoke for less than 30 minutes even with two video interludes played during the speech.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, in the lone formal Republican response, ripped Evers on the unemployment claims issue and vaccine distribution. Meanwhile, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, praised Evers for offering proposals such as nonpartisan redistricting and fixing the unemployment system to address the challenges facing Wisconsin.
Evers laid out three proposals in his address, led by the overhaul of the unemployment program.
Evers has previously said he planned to address what he’s called an antiquated system in his budget that will be delivered to lawmakers next month. Instead, he said tonight he wants the overhaul to be the second bill lawmakers take up after the COVID-19 legislation that’s now caught up in a standoff between Assembly and Senate Republicans.
Republicans have regularly criticized Evers for the pace at which his administration has addressed the backlog, particularly as stories of out-of-work Wisconsinites have filled the media in recent months. Last month, Evers declared the backlog gone as he appointed Amy Pechacek the new Department of Workforce Development secretary.
Evers ticked off a series of stats about the strain put on the system by the pandemic, including 8.8 million claims since March compared to 7.2 million from 2016 through 2019.
He said the system should’ve been updated years ago and wasn’t designed to handle the “massive numbers of modern days.” Evers said both parties are to blame for not taking action sooner on a system that’s been in place since Richard Nixon was president. But he took particular aim at Republicans; he said they have spent the past decade passing laws “deliberately making it even harder for people to access these critical supports when they need it the most.”
Evers offered no specifics of his plan, but said it will take years to replace the system. He also warned if lawmakers continue to ignore the problem, the voters will hold them accountable.
“This past year brought to bear the inaction of my predecessors and members of this and previous legislatures who avoided their responsibility and duty for far too long,” Evers said. “Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s gone on long enough. It ends tonight.”
But Vos torched Evers on the unemployment claims issue. He cited audits that found fewer than 1 percent of calls to the state’s unemployment line got through at the height of the demand and that Evers’ DWD failed to act quickly on information it had to clear claims through the adjudication process.
Vos said Evers owes many Wisconsin families an apology.
“These failures weren’t brought on by an antiquated system. They were brought on by a lack of leadership,” the Rochester Republican said.
The guv said the pandemic has underscored the digital divide across the state while touting the $54 million his first budget put into broadband, calling it the largest investment in state history. The upcoming budget will include nearly $200 million to continue expanding access.
According to his office, the proposed investment includes $150 million toward expanding broadband infrastructure in underserved areas and $40 million to help low-income residents afford Internet services. Evers’ office also cited FCC figures showing 430,000 people who make up a quarter of the state’s rural population lack access to high-speed Internet.
“It’s 2021, folks,” Evers said. “Having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet. Period.”
The guv also said his biennial budget will include a provision to require the Legislature to take up what he’s dubbed “The People’s Maps” through a commission he created. He’ll also include a provision to prevent the Legislature from destroying records related to the map-drawing process. Still, the prospects of lawmakers adhering to that or his calls for drawing their boundaries “in the light of day” were unlikely at best. Majority Republicans have the power to remove the provisions from Evers’ budget once it’s sent to them for consideration.
“Folks, it’s time we look to the people, not politicians, to draw maps that are fair and impartial,” Evers said.
Evers spent part of his speech recognizing how different the world looks now compared to when he addressed lawmakers a year ago. He listed off the priorities he had in the 2020 address, delivered two months before he issued a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19, including special sessions to address the dairy crisis and provide funding for schools.
Instead, he pointed to the challenges the state faced in dealing with COVID.
He noted the more than 5,000 Wisconsinites who have passed away due to COVID-19, dedicating the address to them and asking for a moment of silence. He also paid tribute to aide Ben Balzer, who died last summer in a tubing incident.
Evers acknowledged those waiting to get vaccinated and “back to life as we knew it,” saying the state was working to distribute doses “as quickly and as fairly as we can.”
But Vos accused the guv of lacking urgency in developing a plan to distribute the vaccine, calling it “an embarrassment compared to other states.” He noted a committee devising the priorities for who gets the vaccine was recommending those in prison receive it before 65-year-old grandmothers. The proposal is now in a public comment period before being reviewed by the administration and ultimately Evers.
Vos urged those watching to register their opposition to the proposal. And he pointed to efforts in other states such as New Jersey opening mega-sites to deliver the vaccine and some doing drive-through locations.
“Gov. Evers, do your job,” implored Vos, whose response lasted half as long as Evers’ speech and was interrupted about 10 times by his GOP colleagues by applause.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Town of Mason, said the guv focused on answers to problems facing the state and was particularly pleased with the call to invest in broadband access. Vos’ response, she said, was just criticism with no solutions.
“The governor was animated and upbeat,” Bewley said. “I found that the Republican response was rather angry and did not have the positive tone that the governor’s did.”
In his remarks, Vos also took a veiled swipe at Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who reached a deal with Evers on a slimmed-down COVID-19 bill.
After the Senate passed the bill on a voice vote, LeMahieu touted the liability protections it included for businesses, nonprofits and others.
Vos said Assembly Republicans will continue to “work to reach a consensus as equals, but never compromise our conservative ideals.”
“It seems some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave into the governor’s demands,” Vos said.
LeMahieu responded in a statement the bill was a “great win while we continue to work on our core priorities of opening schools, lifting gathering bans, and putting limits on local bureaucrats.”
Following Vos’ speech, the Assembly passed a resolution praising him for becoming the longest-serving speaker in Wisconsin history. The resolution was approved via voice vote with no Dem members present on the chamber floor.
See the speech replay.
Read Evers’ speech.
Read Vos’ prepared remarks.
See reaction at the WisPolitics.com press release page.