In Third State of the State Address, Gov. Evers Calls for Unemployment System Overhaul and Declares 2021 “Year of Broadband”

On Tuesday night, Governor Tony Evers delivered his third annual State of the State address virtually via YouTube and Facebook. After reflecting on the challenges of 2020 and reviewing the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor set out several of his policy priorities for 2021. Referencing the massive influx of unemployment claims that the state has received since last March, the governor claimed that an “antiquated system” and burdensome rules were the main causes of the resulting backlog of claims and long delays in processing time.

To address this, Gov. Evers called on the Legislature to take up his plan to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance (UI) system. The governor’s proposal would require the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD) and all employers and claimants to use electronic means for filing reports, making contributions to the UI fund, and receiving and transmitting UI-related documents. It would also permit DWD to use electronic records and signatures for any document related to UI administration. Any exceptions to these requirements would be determined by DWD rule. Additionally, the proposal would allocate $5.32 million in general purpose revenue to improve the unemployment program’s IT systems.

In his response to the governor’s address, delivered in the Assembly chambers immediately following the speech, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) blamed last year’s UI delays on a lack of leadership from the governor. The following morning, as promised in his address, Gov. Evers issued Executive Order 103, which will call the Legislature into a Special Session next Tuesday for the sole purpose of considering his proposal. In response, a group of Republican legislative leaders including the Assembly speaker, Senate president, majority leaders, and Joint Finance Committee co-chairs issued a press release claiming that the Evers Administration already has access to current appropriations that could be used for IT upgrades at DWD. They also argued that changes made by the Legislature and previous governor had modernized the system such that nearly all UI applications are now filed online.

The governor’s address also previewed several aspects of his upcoming 2021-23 budget proposal. Declaring 2021 to be the “Year of Broadband,” Gov. Evers said his budget proposal will include about $205 million for various broadband initiatives. Most of this funding ($150 million) would go to broadband expansion grants that would combine with federal and private funding sources to expand broadband in areas with little or no internet access. His budget will also feature $40 million to reduce internet service costs for low-income families, a grant program to reduce the cost of line extensions, and reforms to encourage municipalities and electrical cooperatives to help expand broadband service.

The final priority of his address was redistricting, which must be done by Wisconsin’s Legislature this year following the publication of the 2020 Census. Gov. Evers said that his 2021-23 budget proposal will require the Legislature to create its proposed maps during public meetings. Furthermore, lawmakers would be required to consider proposed maps from the “People’s Maps Commission,” a body created by the governor and announced in last year’s State of the State address. The commission has been holding virtual meetings emphasizing each of the state’s congressional districts; the meetings began in October of last year and are set to continue through March.