Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 26, 2021
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — While Democrat Gov. Tony Evers blames Republican lawmakers for failing to upgrade the state’s Unemployment Insurance information technology system, the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee say the administration has long had the power to begin fixing the IT system.
State Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) on Monday sent the governor a letter requesting he “immediately initiate a request for proposal” to upgrade what Evers has described as “antiquated” technology.
“If you believe the UI IT System is truly the cause of the unacceptable backlog of unemployment claims under your administration, your action on this issue is egregiously overdue,” the lawmakers wrote.
Evers in his State of the State address called for a special session of the Legislature to take up his $5.3 million proposal to begin “modernizing’ the claims system. A portion of the funding would pay for a consultant to tell the state just what upgrades are needed and how much they would cost.
The IT system, however, is but one of myriad sources of the debacle that has been the Department of Workforce Development’s handling of Unemployment Insurance claims that poured in after Evers and his health chief locked down the state at the outbreak of the pandemic.
“This was a self-imposed coma on our economy and he did it through his executive orders shutting down the state,” Marklein said in an interview Monday with Empower Wisconsin. “If you’re going to shut down the economy, which he did, wouldn’t you think one of the first state agencies hit would be your Department of Workforce Development?”
Marklein added that Evers’ former DWD secretary, Caleb Frostman, fired after six months of massive UI claims backlogs, had no foresight. Neither did Frostman’s boss.
“If I were a governor going to shut down the economy, I would be thinking about which agencies would be most impacted. Unfortunately, they did it weeks and months too late,” the senator said.
Beyond the administration’s preparation problems, the lawmakers note the executive branch’s failure to act. In their letter, they remind the governor that his administration has been looking into replacing the IT system for over a year.
“Over that time, hundreds of thousands of unemployed citizens have had their benefits unnecessarily delayed by your lack of leadership,” they wrote. “This has been evidenced in multiple audits and by the resignation of your department secretary. Yet in your call for a Special Session, you indicated that the process of writing an RFP has not started and you want funding for a consultant to begin this work.”
They point to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo that lays out numerous appropriations and authorities that could be tapped into. That includes state procurement options, expenditure authority requests through the finance committee, and shifting existing appropriations in the budget. In short, Evers could have prioritized funding — and still could.
That goes for the hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal through the federal CARES Act. As should be noted, the law gives the governor the discretion and the flexibility to spend the federal money how he sees fit to help those impacted by COVID-19. Surely that would include the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites caught in the state’s dysfunctional Unemployment Insurance system.
“What is amazing to me is there doesn’t seem to be anybody asking the governor the question of why he is not utilizing any of these powers to procure,” Born said in an interview with Empower Wisconsin. The governor has failed to answer such questions or deflected blame on the rare occasions he has been asked.
The lawmakers particularly take issue with Evers’ claims that he needs legislative approval, with Democrats blaming Republicans who control the Legislature for not meeting for months. But just weeks ago, the administration found more than $1 million for a contract with Google to assist with unemployment claims.
“No legislative approval was needed for that decision. Why now?” Born and Marklein ask in their letter.
Evers certainly didn’t ask for permission to expand his stay-at-home orders and issue repeated health emergency declarations, even though state law and a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling require legislative approval.
Selective legislative involvement for the power-grabbing governor.
“Your call for a special session doesn’t make any sense unless the purpose of your delay is to pass blame and play political games to cover up your failure to plan for and execute processing unemployment insurance claims,” the lawmakers wrote. “You have repeatedly lamented legislative oversight and now you are trying to hide behind legislative approval when it is not needed. It is troubling to see your lack of leadership every time you are called to stand up for Wisconsin’s citizens.”
Read the lawmakers’ letter here.
Photo credit USA Today Network