Wisconsin owes up to $476 million to the federal government and is trying to keep its unemployment fund solvent. What does it do? Bully the people it's supposed to be helping, of course!
A law is speeding through the Wisconsin legislature which would allow the state to spy on and even seize the bank accounts of those receiving unemployment benefits. The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the bill would "require jobless people to provide more proof that they are seeking work, and make it easier for the state to recover overpayments — including those made because of government errors — by allowing officials to peek into unemployed people's bank accounts."
This comes in the same week that Republicans in Wisconsin snuck in measures into the state budget that would cut benefits and push the burden of the deficit of the unemployment benefits fund on state taxpayers. The ideas included in the budget are some that do not have consensus from the state's labor and management representative councils. One such idea is the "substantial fault" which makes it easier for employers to deny unemployment benefits to fired workers.
The measures have been justified as ways to improve efficiency and quell criticism about the state's management of the funds. But the Republicans are selling the bill as being good for the workers themselves: "This is to protect the workers and lessen the burden on employers who are paying all the bills," said co-author of the bill state Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown).
The law allowing the state to peer into bank accounts is a product of the criticism against its own administrative procedures. The state has been accused of not training its administrative judges to rule effectively between employer and former employee disputes. The access to bank accounts would also allow states to monitor for and retreive overpayments "made as a result of administrative errors or computer malfunctions."
Wouldn't it make more sense to instead find ways to provide better oversight and training to the individuals and systems involved than to spy on the bank accounts of the unemployed? Operational cost savings would be far better in the long term than developing systems to monitor bank accounts, and also not be a public relations disaster.
Even more odd is the sleight of hand being played with regards to unemployment benefits. While the bill introduced by Knodl shows an increase of $22 million over two years to the benefits offered to the unemployed, the budget changes snuck in this week show a $37 million cut in benefits over the same time period. That is a net of decrease of unemployment benefits by $15 million.
The budgetary changes also include a new system for collecting unemployment taxes which would also increase employer tax burdens by $32 million annually. So really, everybody is getting screwed in the Republicans' attempt to fix the deficit. Why does this sound so familiar?
The Democrats in Wisconsin are worried and livid about the future of both the bill and budgetary changes. Summarizing the plan as a sneak attack, Cory Mason (D-Racine) blamed Republicans for further "kicking" the unemployed while they were down:
"We invented unemployment insurance in this state. And I think it betrays the work of that good legacy to sneak this policy through the budget like this."