MADISON —In his State of the State speech, which was given virtually for the first time in Wisconsin’s history, Gov. Tony Evers asked the Legislature to update the unemployment payment system and spend nearly $200 million to expand broadband access, two problem areas the coronavirus pandemic brought to light last year.

Evers announced he was calling a special session for the Legislature to fix the unemployment system, which was overwhelmed with record numbers of people filing claims when the pandemic hit. Evers, a Democrat, has sustained months of Republican criticism over how he handled the backlog in claims that have left some residents without unemployment checks for months.

Several area Republican legislators continued the criticism of the program after the pre-recorded speech was broadcast on YouTube and Facebook channels Tuesday night.

“To this day, our state has an unacceptable backlog with unemployment claims” state Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc said. “While Gov. Evers blames an outdated system for this failure, our neighboring state with the same system does not have the same backlog. Additionally, a Legislative Audit Bureau investigation revealed that a mere 1% of phone calls had been answered and many adjudications with all of the needed information remained unprocessed. This is simply a failure of leadership.”

State Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, said, “Throughout the pandemic, the governor’s failure in leadership caused tens of thousands to wait months for their unemployment at a time when many were living week to week. He maintains his administration did ‘everything humanly possible’ to handle unemployment claims but failed on numerous fronts with his DWD Secretary eventually resigning.”

Evers is trying to shift the responsibility of the Republican-controlled Legislature by holding a special session to take up his plan to modernize the system to speed the processing of claims. He was to release details of that plan today.

Ever’s 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 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.

“While I agree with the governor on our state’s need for broadband expansion, his default to spending billions of taxpayer dollars is out of reach,” Dittrich said. “Wisconsin families would be better served if Gov. Evers followed the science and got our students back in school. Additionally, a public-private partnership proposed through regular legislation is a far better way to serve Wisconsin families when it comes to the broadband issue.”

Much of Evers’ address focused on the challenges from the coronavirus pandemic. He asked for a moment of silence and dedicated the speech to the more than 5,000 Wisconsin residents who have already died from COVID-19.

Dittrich and Born are not pleased with the state’s response to the virus.

Dittrich said it is the lack of leadership causing a slow distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. “Wisconsin ranks 11th of 12 Midwestern states in our response,” she said. “While the governor is demanding that the federal government send him more vaccines, he has barely distributed 50% of what we have been given. Now his administration wants to give prisoners priority with the vaccine over our elderly and high risk citizens.”

“As we commit ourselves to the next round of COVID relief legislation, I implore the governor to truly listen to all Wisconsinites, not just his political base,” Dittrich said.

Born said the governor and his administration are failing the people of Wisconsin. “They had months to prepare for the vaccine, yet Wisconsin trails most of the Midwest in vaccines administered as a percent of population and one of his advisory committees is recommending vaccinating prisoners before 65-year olds.”

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