MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers, in his State of the State speech Tuesday delivered virtually for the first time in state history, called on the Legislature to update Wisconsin’s antiquated unemployment payment system and spend nearly $200 million to expand broadband access, two problem areas the coronavirus pandemic laid bare last year.
Evers pre-recorded the speech which was broadcast on his YouTube and Facebook channels while lawmakers sitting at their desks in the Senate and Assembly chambers watched.
Traditionally, the governor would deliver the speech in the Assembly with lawmakers from both chambers, members of the Supreme Court, the governor’s Cabinet and other guests crammed in. Concerns about spreading the coronavirus scuttled such plans this year.
Evers announced he was calling a special session for the Legislature to fix the beleaguered unemployment system, which was overwhelmed with record numbers of people filing claims when the pandemic hit. It’s proven to be a huge political liability for Evers, who fired the agency secretary in charge and has sustained months of Republican criticism over how he handled the backlog in claims that’s left some without unemployment checks for months.
Now Evers, a Democrat, is trying to shift responsibility to the Republican-controlled Legislature by forcing them into a special session to take up his plan to modernize the system to speed the processing of claims. He was to release details of his plan on Wednesday.
Evers said if the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t address the problem, “the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box.”
The pandemic also underscored the problem of broadband access in rural areas and the “digital divide” across the state, Evers said. He declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” and said his state budget to be released next month will include nearly $200 million for broadband improvement. That is five times what was invested over the past three state budgets combined, he said.
Expanding broadband is an issue that has typically found bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Much of Evers’ address focused on the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic in what he called an “unrelenting” 2020.
Evers asked for a moment of silence and dedicate the speech to the more than 5,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin to date.
“We’ve made it through a difficult year, folks,” he said. “While it was discouraging, we aren’t defeated. While it was trying, we’re tough.”
Evers was fought by Republicans over many of his efforts to address the virus, including a “safer at home” order the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out in May. The court is currently weighing a challenge to Evers’ statewide mask mandate.
Republicans have also been critical of Evers’ vaccine distribution plan, saying it’s not getting the vaccine out quickly enough. Evers and other Democratic governors are urging the federal government to distribute vaccines more quickly, while cautioning that the public likely won’t be inoculated until June.
“Unfortunately, many of the challenges of 2020 will no doubt carry into this new year,” Evers said. “I do not underestimate the challenges that this new year may bring, or the grief we’re still grappling with, the ramifications we’ve yet to fully realize, the new problems that may arise still this year.”
Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt said before the speech that Evers’ tenure has been marked by “failed leadership, broken promises, partisan games and little accomplishment.” He cited the vaccine rollout, which was among the slowest in the Midwest, the backlog of unemployment claims that resulted in monthslong delays in payments for thousands, and lockdowns early in the pandemic that forced businesses to close.
Evers’ speech came on the same day the state Senate, on a bipartisan vote, passed a COVID-19 relief bill. Evers praised it as a compromise and called on the GOP-controlled Assembly to pass it, but that appeared unlikely after Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke said he was “disappointed” with the bill that he said falls short of what is needed.
Evers will release his two-year state budget plan next month, laying out in detail his priorities for the second two years of his term, which will consume much of the Legislature’s time this spring and into the summer. The Legislature is also tasked with the once-a-decade task of redistricting this summer.
Evers last year in his State of the State speech announced the creation of a commission to draw maps that will serve as an alternative to what the Republican-controlled Legislature creates. That commission has been holding meetings across the state to gather feedback.
Evers said his budget will include requirements for the Legislature to consider the maps his commission creates and force lawmakers to create their maps in public. Republicans will almost certainly reject those requirements.