MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans questioned the efforts of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration to fix lengthy delays in issuing professional licenses, even as an agency head said Thursday that wait times had improved.
Dan Hereth, who took charge of the troubled Department of Safety and Professional Services in August, called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to grant his requests for more staff. Testifying before the Legislature’s budget committee, Hereth said processing times for license applications now average 38 days — half the nearly 80-day wait time reported in 2021.
The persistent delays have kept thousands of workers waiting weeks to receive professional licenses, and concerned applicants have overwhelmed the agency’s call center.
The department is funded almost entirely by fees it collects from licensing and inspections, but is unable to use its budget surplus of more than $47 million to hire more staff without the Legislature’s approval. Evers requested 20 new positions for the department in the 2019-21 budget and 12 positions in 2021-23 budget, but the Legislature approved only one new position each time.
The governor asked for nearly 80 new positions across the department in the budget he proposed in February.
Without the ability to hire more employees, the agency has used federal pandemic relief funds to bring on 22 contractors to answer calls and process applications. Each contractor costs the agency roughly $10,000 more than a regular, full-time staff member, but they are less effective at processing licenses, Hereth said.
Republican lawmakers grilled Hereth about why he didn’t go directly to the Joint Finance Committee to ask for permission to hire more staff versus going through the governor’s budget.
“All we’ve heard for the last couple of years during this crisis in your agency is, ‘The Legislature didn’t give us all the positions we wanted,’ and you could’ve asked for them at any point,” said Rep. Mark Born, the committee’s co-chair.
Hereth, who has led the agency as secretary for eight months, said he was focused on other issues such as aging technology. He pushed the committee to approve Evers’ staffing requests in the current budget.
“There shouldn’t have been a need to personally come to this body because they had already been requested in the budget and denied,” Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson said, defending the agency.
The committee will work to rewrite the governor’s budget over the next three months before sending a plan back to Evers, who can revise it with partial vetoes. Republican leaders have already promised to scrap Evers’ budget as proposed and start from scratch.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.