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Attempt to end extra unemployment pay fails; GOP doesn’t act on education special session

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MADISON (WKOW) -- It was an extraordinary session and a special session all rolled into one day. In the end, it amounted to nothing changing Tuesday.

Republicans' efforts to end the state's acceptance of an extra $300 per week in enhanced federal unemployment pay failed as the 59-37 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a governor's veto. The outcome was expected since Republicans don't have a two-thirds majority in either chamber and Democrats indicated they'd be united in preserving Gov. Evers's veto of a bill that ended the extra unemployment benefits.

Evers countered the extraordinary session by calling for a special session where lawmakers would take up a proposal to put another $550 million toward education. $440 million would go to K-12 districts and schools while $110 would go to the UW System and the state's technical colleges.

Republican legislative leaders waited until more than two hours after the extraordinary session ended before coming back and briefly gaveling in and out of the special session with no public notice given beforehand. It follows a pattern of what GOP lawmakers in control of the legislature have done with nearly all of the past special sessions Evers had called.

The extra pay is scheduled to end on its own September 6. Several reviews of states that have opted out of the enhanced benefits, including one from Morgan Stanley, have found cutting the extra $300 per week did not help employers fill jobs in those states.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said lawmakers were doing what they could to respond to business owners statewide who are struggling to fill jobs. He said ending the enhanced pay spoke to a broader conservative view that opposed government dependence.

"We believe we should reward people who go to work," Vos said. "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."

Democrats argued that if Republicans wanted to make a substantial commitment to the state's workforce, it should have beefed up education funding.

"When we invest in our kids and their futures, that isn't just workforce investment for today, or tomorrow, it's for the next generation," said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).

Republicans continued to maintain, as they had throughout the budget process earlier this year, schools were already getting a substantial bump via more than $2 billion via federal pandemic relief.

"We have a guarantee of at least 781 (dollars) per pupil in federal money going into the schools which is about double what we've seen in the last two budgets," said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam).

Democrats pointed to the concerns raised by some rural school leaders who are getting substantially less federal aid than urban districts, who are getting the lion's share of pandemic relief due to the high rates of poverty in their schools.

"Some of those districts are the ones where administrators have spoken out the most and said it doesn't make sense, we either didn't get much federal money or it can't be used for that or we've already spent it," said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh).

Getting Personal

At one point, Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) had her mic cut off while speaking during the debate Tuesday. Hong responded to the speech from Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh).

Schraa was addressing the problems business owners faced, citing his own experience, referring to extra hours worked and increased payroll as they gave raises to maintain staff.

"I know [Rep. Hong], when we were on the floor a couple weeks ago, she actually confessed to me that she had to buss tables because she did not have enough workers," Schraa said.

Hong was visibly upset immediately after Schraa's comments. Colleagues kept her from taking a microphone in the moment; when it was her turn to speak, Hong said she felt no shame in bussing tables and that she wished she could pay her table bussers as much as state lawmakers make.

"We have had a low-wage crisis for decades. If people are making more on unemployment, that's on us, that's not on them," Hong said. "I didn't confess (crap) to you. We as a state, we have not done enough in the last ten years."

At that point, Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) cut off Hong's microphone, saying he did so because profanity is not allowed on the floor. He then allowed Hong to finish her speech.

Thin Margins

Democrats argue another reason for committing the extra $550 million to education is ensuring the state meets federal requirements for receiving the more than $2 billion in pandemic relief.

Federal rules for the money spell out that states must have matched or exceeded previous state spending levels on schools in order to qualify.

A memo from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau found Wisconsin is meeting the requirements by a margin of $9 million in year one of this new budget and $18 million in year two. The memo noted those numbers could changed depending on any changes to spending in other areas.

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Republicans said throughout the budget process they'd work with the fiscal bureau to make sure the state was compliant with federal standards.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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