Gov. Tony Evers delivered his annual State of the State address virtually Tuesday night, focusing on the state’s unemployment system, broadband access and the upcoming redistricting process. The speech came hours after Senate Republicans and Evers reached a deal on COVID-19 legislation, but in his response to Evers’ address, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos indicated it would not move forward.
Evers’ pre-recorded speech was broadcast over his Facebook and YouTube channels, marking the first time the address was delivered virtually. Lawmakers gathered in the Senate and Assembly chambers to watch the address.
The governor focused on the state’s outdated unemployment system, saying both Republicans and Democrats are to blame. Evers fired the Department of Workforce Development Secretary in September, as the agency dealt with a backlog of unemployment claims during the height of the pandemic. Evers signed an executive order on Wednesday calling for a special session to convene on Jan. 19 to take up his plan to modernize the 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. No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done,” Evers said in his address.
Evers declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access,” announcing that the upcoming biennial budget will include a $200 million investment into broadband. Evers previously announced a pilot program to address disparities in broadband access in October.
“This pandemic has underscored — and in some ways, exacerbated — the digital divide that exists across our state. This pandemic has shown us firsthand that lack of access to high-speed internet continues to be a setback for kids, families, and businesses across our state,” Evers said.
Evers also said his budget will require the Republican-controlled legislature to consider maps from the People’s Maps Commission, the nonpartisan redistricting committee he announced in last year’s address. It would also prevent the legislature from destroying records from the redistricting process. Republicans are likely to reject those requirements.
Evers reaches deal with Senate GOP
Evers honored the over 5,000 Wisconsinites who have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic with a moment of silence at the beginning of his address. He said that the challenges of 2020 will “no doubt carry into this new year.”
Evers also said that statewide efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus were “met with costly litigation and resistance nearly every step of the way.”
Hours before Evers’ address, the state Senate passed a COVID-19 bill that removed some controversial elements in the Assembly bill passed last week, such as restrictions on local public health officials and a provision that would require a two-thirds vote every two weeks from school boards to provide virtual instruction. The Senate bill retains a provision establishing civil liability exemptions relating to COVID-19 claims.
On Tuesday, Evers signaled his support of the Senate legislation, which passed in a 29-2 vote.
“I’ve been grateful to work together with Republican Majority Leader LeMahieu to find common ground and pass a bill on COVID-19 that reflects a good faith effort in compromise and bipartisanship, Evers said in a statement. “Although it's not the COVID compromise we originally proposed, AB 1 as amended by the Senate is a good start to support our state’s response to this pandemic. The Assembly should pass AB 1 as it was amended today and send it to my desk for my signature without delay.”
However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos indicated the Assembly was unlikely to pass the amended version in his response to Evers’ address.
“Late last year, we spent time negotiating with Governor Evers and our Senate colleagues to find common ground. It seems some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave into the governor’s demands. We will continue to work to reach a consensus as equals, but never compromise our conservative ideals,” Vos said.
In his response, delivered in the Assembly chamber with no Democrats present, Vos also criticized Evers’ handling of the unemployment system, pointing to a legislative audit that found less than one percent of the calls to the state’s hotline were answered during the pandemic.
In his rebuttal, Vos also criticized Evers’ COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Wisconsin is behind other Midwestern states and has administered less than half of the doses it has received so far, according to state Department of Health Services data.
“Governor, if you need help, there are offers on the table from the UW System and just today the federal government. The vaccine distribution effort should be an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ operation. There’s no room for delays or excuses,” Vos said.
Vos announced the Assembly Committee on Health will hold a public hearing Thursday to “get to the bottom of the vaccine issue.” Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, sent a letter to Evers Wednesday urging him to “review and reevaluate” his administration’s vaccination distribution plan.
After Vos’ speech, Republicans passed a resolution honoring Vos as the longest-serving Speaker of the Assembly. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback responded on Twitter and criticized legislative inaction during the pandemic.
state news writer