By Melanie Conklin
On the Assembly floor during Tuesday’s surprise session, Minority Leader Gordon Hintz remarked several times that the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee paid to fly GOP representatives back from wherever they were vacationing during summer recess just to try to override of Gov. Tony Evers’ veto of their bill immediately ending pandemic supplemental unemployment benefits.
And taxpayers paid for the session day’s per diems for members’ food, lodging and travel.
After several hours of repetitive speeches from both parties, the body failed to override the governor’s veto, which everyone paying attention to state politics knew was going to be the outcome. Most of the speeches given on the bill were talking points from the last time the bill was debated and passed on June 9. (It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto, which would have required Democrats to switch their votes.)
So with most members present — and Republicans even swearing in a newly elected member who was not supposed to be on the payroll until fall — Republicans failed and Evers’ veto stands.
And the $300 a week unemployment supplemental benefits that were the subject of the bill will remain in place until Sept. 1 — just over a month from now — when they will go away without any action.
If Republicans, who were hush-hush about the agenda before their corporate business lobby donors at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce accidentally blew the surprise, were hoping to catch Democrats off guard and unable to be in Madison for the vote so the GOP could get to the two-thirds margin, that plan also failed.
Although the session proved unsuccessful and unnecessary, there were good arguments on both sides about unemployment and its root causes.
The Republican argument essentially boiled down to one key point: Employers are having a hard time finding workers and are having to offer higher wages and signing bonuses to attract and retain employees. Republican representatives gave many examples of businesses large and small, from restaurants to manufacturers, that cannot find employees, saying it is a job-seekers’ market.
Speaker Robin Vos said the differing approaches revealed philosophical differences between the two parties.
“So I think the Democrats’ answer is automatically just throw out a bunch of free money and that will solve the problem. It’s not that the answer is to start by saying we need people to earn what they actually are paid,” said Vos. “We believe that we should reward people who go to work. If you go to work, and you are able to support yourself, that’s the American Dream. The Democrats’ vision is to say we want more people dependent on government because it’s better to stay home and have somebody else support your family than it is to support them yourself. And that’s just a sad commentary.”
Republicans, as part of their argument, declared the pandemic to be pretty much over. In kicking off a pre-session press conference, Vos said, “We are moving past the pandemic. I think that’s the thing that all of Wisconsin agrees on.”
“Stop making things worse,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke. “That’s the resounding refrain that I’ve heard from every single business owner that I’ve talked to in my district. Stop making things worse. Government is competing against the private sector and they’re making things worse with this extended unemployment benefit. Remember this extended benefit was about an emergency. Right? This was meant to replace lost wages because people couldn’t find jobs because government shut down their businesses that they worked at. This was meant to cover a gap. That emergency is over.”
One of the most detailed rebuttals on both the economic and pandemic health points came from Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) who noted that the workforce shortage has existed for a decade or more in Wisconsin.
“I think that that’s important because for you all to come in today and say we need to end these benefits via a veto override when they’re already going to expire in five weeks is a really interesting use of time,” said Shankland.
She stated that the five-year average of unemployment claims per week was 40,000 and currently Wisconsin is at about 50,000 — and using economists’ definition is at full employment.
“The definition from economists of full employment is so few workers are available that employers need to raise wages to attract help,” she added, “and some are doing that. Some are providing incentives and some are changing the nature of work, perhaps they’re offering remote work, or part-time work or working around a mom or dad’s schedule so that they can help with picking a child up from daycare, for example. But the nature of this shortage is changing … and we’re very close to pre-pandemic [employment] levels, even though we’re not quite there yet.”
Other factors may be in play that are keeping people from returning to work, Shankland added, such as ongoing health risks, including the COVID delta variant, unvaccinated kids under 12, people who refuse the vaccine and long-haulers who in the wake of being sick from COVID-19 are experiencing chronic health problems.
“‘The decision to cut $300 federal unemployment benefits is tied to politics, not economics.’ And that’s a quote from JP Morgan,” said Shankland.
In response Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) chided her — without any apparent irony — for listening to economists.
“I could go and quote economic studies from JP Morgan or whatever, like [Shankland] but, you know, I don’t think we need to go to Wall Street elites to figure out how to fix Main Street problems. So, what we hear from actual mainstream businesses is, we are not getting the workers. We are offering people jobs and then they’re not taking them.”
What about the schools?
When Evers learned that the Legislature would be returning to the Capitol for a surprise extraordinary session, he decided to add on a special session to allocate funding to schools.
Republicans did the same thing with Evers’ special session on education that they did with his past special session calls — they gaveled in and out in about 30 seconds.
As Vos put it, “The reality is you talk to any business leader or any business owner, Republican, Democrat, nonpartisan, they all agree for the most part, that we’ve got [an employment] problem that is at crisis levels. We do not have a crisis level for funding our schools. We actually just had a budget signed by Gov. Evers which provided huge increases. We have the largest funding increase in the history of the country for education. That should be something that we all celebrate and say there’s more than enough money in the system.”
Republicans — in floor speeches and post-session press releases — focused on the lack of employees, making no mention of schools.
One notable exception was a release from Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) who accused Evers of “lazy leadership” for just wanting to “throw money” at schools. He offered his own solution:
“In order to improve our schools and help our kids, we should focus on three things: consolidate school districts to one per county, end the stranglehold that the union has on [Milwaukee Public Schools] by allowing the state to take over, and refocus on teaching kids how to think instead of what to think.”
Democrats’ post-session press releases and many passionate floor speeches asserted that the news of the day was that Republicans refused to take up Evers’ call for a special session to allocate more money for education at a time when Wisconsin had an unprecedented revenue boost.
Only Democrats linked the issue of employment to education.
“The level of funding for classroom instruction is the second lowest level of new funding in the past five budgets,” said Hintz. “So at a time when we’re seeing record revenue, the investment that actually makes it into the school classrooms is the second lowest…”
At that point, Speaker Pro-tem Tyler August interrupted Hintz, saying, “Reminder to the gentleman that the topic before the body is Assembly Bill 336.” (The bill on unemployment benefits.)
“Trust me, we are talking, people shortage, worker shortage, quality of life and I’ll get there. Right now I’m here and will drive that home…” said Hintz, who was again interrupted by August, saying, “Well get there faster.”
Hintz reminded the body that due to President Joe Biden and Democrats’ American Recovery Act Plan, along with state savings from Foxconn and unexpectedly healthy tax revenue projections, there is $5.3 billion in new revenue coming into Wisconsin.
He added, “But the idea that $5.3 billion amounted to only $112 million of new education spending is out of line with K-12 education as a priority in our state.”
The worker shortage has long been a problem and will continue to be a problem long after Sept. 1 when the unemployment supplement is eliminated, Hintz said.
“Education funding is the key to our state’s ability to recruit and retain people, workers, as well as ensure that the workers we have are a highly educated and skilled workforce. Our workers shortage at the pay being offered is not a short term issue with a single solution.”
Democrats also linked attracting workers to not just pay — but creating an environment in Wisconsin where workers want to stay and live. “So today if the issue isn’t just a political one, but it’s actually one that we want to address, I would suggest we revisit the budget and revisit the funding and look at making the investment to demonstrate to people in the state and out of the state that this is a state that cares.”
Vos responded: “That is a crazy idea that again, only people on a very far left plane of existence would ever believe it’s best for America, if we pay people more to not work than to work.”
Evers released a statement calling it “breathtaking” that Republicans turned down the chance to increase funding for schools.
“Republicans had time to go to Madison for another political stunt but couldn’t be bothered to even consider investing more money into our kids and our schools — that’s just wrong,” said Evers. “Our kids deserve better, and I will continue to fight to do what’s best for them because I know that’s what’s best for our state.”