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Gov. Evers lays out 2021 priorities: broadband, unemployment, redistricting

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MADISON (WKOW) -- For the first time in state history, the governor delivered the State of the State address in a pre-recorded broadcast. Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Tony Evers delivered a virtual speech while mostly Republican lawmakers sat in the Assembly chamber, watching it on screens set up at the large desk up front.

Evers began by recapping the hardships of 2020 before urging Assembly Republicans to pass the Senate COVID-19 relief bill he considered a compromise and was willing to sign.

Assembly Republicans said they will not take up the bill, which strips out a number of controversial provisions they had put in their version of the bill, which the Assembly passed last week. Evers signaled those items would likely lead to him vetoing the measure.

"The governor was actually able to somehow convince the Republicans in the state Senate to give him almost everything that he wanted in exchange for liability protection," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R - Rochester) said. "Congratulations to the governor, looks like he got one on the state Senate, that's his right but we represent people too."

Evers dedicated three sections of his annual address to issues he wanted to prioritize in the upcoming year: expanding access to rural broadband, overhauling the unemployment processing system, and taking the power to draw state and congressional district maps away from lawmakers.

Year of Broadband

Evers said the pandemic highlighted inequities with regard to access to high-speed internet in a number of areas: education, business, and telehealth.

His proposal called for investing $200 million in expanding broadband to reach about 430,000 people in rural Wisconsin currently without access to high-speed internet.

"It's 2021, folks—having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity," Evers said. "Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet. Period."

Overhauling Unemployment

Evers' speech then pivoted toward the unemployment fiasco that has frustrated millions of Wisconsinites throughout the pandemic.

Evers said he will call for a special session to have the legislature approve spending for a complete overhaul of the outdated technology currently at the core of the Department of Workforce Development's unemployment claim processing system.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," Evers said. "No politics, no posturing, send me the bill and let’s just get it done."

Assembly Republican leaders Vos and Rep. Jim Steineke (R - Kaukauna) did not answer a reporter who asked if they would do more than gavel in without taking action, as they had done in previous special sessions this year.

Evers' speech also laid some blame for the unemployment response problem with Republicans who, under then Gov. Scott Walker, passed laws that made it harder for people to qualify for unemployment benefits.

27 News found cases this summer where people were laid off because of COVID-19 but did not qualify due to those past laws.

Drawing a line

Evers said his other 2021 priority is changing the way Wisconsin draws its maps for state legislative and congressional districts every ten years.

Evers said he would have the legislature take up maps drawn by the People's Maps Commission. Currently, lawmakers in the state legislature draw the maps every decade -- something that historically has been done in the state when both Republicans and Democrats have been in power.

Democrats say the GOP in 2010 drew an especially gerrymandered map while Republicans have maintained the imbalance is more a result of liberal voters clustering in the state's largest cities, Milwaukee and Madison.

Vos said he will not accept the districts drawn by the People's Maps Commission, possibly setting up another divided government stalemate destined for the courts.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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