Tuesday night, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers delivered his state of the state speech virtually — a first in state history. He called on the Legislature to address problems exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, like updating Wisconsin's unemployment system and expanding broadband access.
Evers’ speech was pre-recorded and broadcast online without the typical audience, fanfare and applause. He described the last year as an unrelenting one, with challenges no one would have believed and obstacles that have continued into the new year.
The Democrat pointed to the antiquated unemployment system, overwhelmed by a record number of claims when the pandemic hit — 1.6 million more than the previous four years combined.
“I’m announcing today I will be calling a special session of the Legislature to take up a plan to modernize our unemployment system and help ensure nothing like this happens to the people of Wisconsin again," he said.
Evers has weathered months of Republican criticism over the backlog in unemployment claims that’s left some without months of checks. But he laid some blame at the feet of the Republican-controlled Legislature on Tuesday, saying a decade’s worth of legislators knew the system was outdated and didn’t take the time to fix it.
“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. No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done," he said.
Evers also called 2021 “the Year of Broadband Access,” after the pandemic exposed the state’s digital divide. “Students, educators, and schools making the shift to virtual learning were faced with a lack of access or unreliable connections that made it difficult to teach, engage, and learn. Folks trying to stay healthy and access basic healthcare services had trouble using telemedicine or other alternatives to visit with their doctor when they couldn’t go in-person,” he explained. “And businesses working to adapt and provide online ordering or payment options didn’t have the technological tools or lacked connectivity in their area.”
In his two-year state budget proposal, Evers will ask that $200 million be set aside to expand broadband access. That’s five times what the state invested over the past three budgets combined. It’s an issue that’s typically received bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos delivered the Republican response inside the Assembly chamber to the applause of other GOP legislators. No Democrats were present. Vos blamed the Evers administration for 10,000s of Wisconsinites needing to wait weeks or months for their unemployment insurance benefits.
“A legislative audit found that in the pandemic less than 1% of the calls to the state hotline were answered. Another audit found the DWD (Department of Workforce Development) had the information to clear the pending claims but didn’t act. These failures brought unnecessary hardship to Wisconsin families. The Evers administration owes these families answers and, in many cases, an apology," he said.
Vos said he’s more concerned by what he called Evers’ lack of a COVID vaccine distribution plan. Vos said few people know where and when they’ll get a vaccine compared to residents in other states.
“Arizona is ramping up its vaccine rollout by opening a 24/7 distribution center at its State Farm Stadium. West Virginia has one of the best per capita vaccination rates in the nation and reportedly the first to vaccinate all that state’s nursing home residents and staff, as well as assisted living facilities. New Jersey is planning to open six vaccine megasites and a number of states have adopted drive-thru clinics,” he said. Vos urged Evers to take offers of help from the UW system or the federal government.
Evers and other Democratic governors have asked the federal government to distribute vaccines more quickly. Evers said the state is working to distribute vaccine doses as quickly and fairly as possible.
Evers will release his two-year state budget plan next month. It will lay out in detail his priorities for the second two years of his term and consume much of the Legislature’s time this spring and into the summer.