When a governor calls a special legislative session, it means they want lawmakers to address issues of pressing importance that can’t wait for a regular session.
In his State of the State address last week, Governor Tony Evers announced that he would call a special session of the legislature to update Wisconsin’s beleaguered unemployment system.
“We know that replacing this system will take years—that’s why it should’ve been done sooner, but it’s also why we now have not another moment to waste,” Evers said.
However, special sessions only require that the legislature meet to consider legislation on a topic. They don’t require that they take any specific action. In the special session on January 19th, state Republican lawmakers took no action, choosing instead to gavel in and gavel out within 30 minutes.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Governor Evers’ proposed bill included roughly $5.3 million to update the unemployment system.
Evers has now called seven special sessions during his time as governor, on topics ranging from gun violence and police reform, to farmer support and education funding. None of those sessions have resulted in legislation.
Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment system has struggled to keep up during the pandemic. The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has received nearly 9 million unemployment claims since March. Temporary federal jobless benefits and a decades-old coding system have complicated this backlog.
Last September, Governor Evers took the rare step of firing Caleb Frostman, his then Workforce Development Secretary, citing delays in benefits.
Speaking with WORT last week, the DWD’s new head Amy Pechacek emphasized that recent solutions to clear the backlog – including a partnership with Google – are only temporary.
Pechacek said the DWD needs the funding to permanently revamp its technology, something she hopes will see bipartisan support in the upcoming budget.
“I think that this past year has taught everybody in the state, and I think there are a lot of lessons learned from this pandemic. I think one of the lessons learned that probably transcends political party affiliation is that we need a modern system in the unemployment division, so I’m hoping that this is something that can be supported on both sides of the aisle,” Pechacek said.
The legislature will vote on the next biennial budget later this year.