Tighter unemployment benefits and rules on gas-powered engines. Here is the Senate passed today

MADISON - Unemployment, gas powered engines, bus drivers and more were on the agenda as the state Senate met for the first time this summer.

Here's what the Senate voted on.

Tightening unemployment benefits

Unemployment has been a concern for Republicans particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the state's system struggled to keep up with record requests as the federal government offered more money to those who lost their jobs.

A package of unemployment bills is aimed at limiting some programs and directing agencies to handle portions of the program differently.

One bill would directly link how long a person can receive benefits to the state's unemployment rate. Currently, unemployed Wisconsinites can receive regular benefits for up to 26 weeks. That would drop to as little as 14 weeks under the legislation because the state's unemployment rate is at a historic low. The number of weeks benefits would be available would rise along with the unemployment rate, topping out at 26 weeks when the unemployment rate is at 9% or higher.

A number of other bills are aimed at changing other parts of the unemployment insurance program or directing the Department of Workforce Development to change their handling of work searches.

The bills were introduced the day after the April 4 spring election during which Wisconsinites overwhelmingly voted in favor of a non-binding referendum that said unemployed, able-bodied adults should be required to search for work while receiving benefits. Nearly 80% of voters voted yes on the ballot question.

Other proposals would rename unemployment insurance to "reemployment assistance," punish unemployment recipients for declining or "ghosting" interviews or job offers by making the individual ineligible for benefits for the week, enact stricter identity verification checks for unemployment benefits, prohibit local governments from using taxpayer money to create guaranteed income programs and require the Department of Health Services to review every six months the eligibility of people participating in medical assistance programs reserved for low-income people, family caretakers and pregnant women.

A wave of unemployment claims in 2020 overwhelmed Wisconsin's outdated unemployment system in 2020, resulting in a backlog that stretched on for months, resulting in some claimants missing out on much-needed payments.

In order to avoid those issues, another bill would implement a number of changes at the department to enable a more efficient response. It would extend call center hours during times of high need, give the Department of Administration the ability to transfer state employees to the DWD to meet increased workloads, provide online resources to employers about unemployment programs, building and requiring weekly eligibility crosschecks using various databases, and improving identity checks for recipients.

The Senate passed all of the bills along party lines. The bills will now be sent to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' desk, who will veto them, according to Democratic leaders.

Senate Minority leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, said it was inappropriate for the Senate to take up bills like these at a time where Wisconsin is struggling to retain workers already, and has record low unemployment.

"These are solutions in search of problems," she said before voting no.

More: Assembly passes bills aimed at cutting number of weeks unemployment would be paid in a good economy, tighten eligibility rules

Bans on gasoline-powered engines are barred

Senators approved a rule that would bar state lawmakers and local officials from implementing bans on gasoline-powered engines under another pair of bills, which the Assembly has already passed.

The bills were introduced by GOP lawmakers in response to a new California law that requires all new vehicles to have engines powered by electricity or hydrogen within 12 years.

Senators passed the bill along party lines.

Allowing school board members to volunteer as bus drivers

The Senate approved a bill that would allow school board members to become volunteer bus drivers amid a critical shortage.

More: Pewaukee High School principal, athletic director getting commercial driver's licenses to be backup bus drivers to help with driver shortage

While school board members normally cannot serve in another public role, the bill would create an exception similar to existing carveouts for volunteering as coaches or extracurricular activity supervisors.

School board members volunteering under the bill would need to abstain from voting on issues concerning bus drivers. Like other bus drivers, they would still need to hold a license and pass a background check.

The bill passed with a voice vote in the Senate. An Assembly committee held a public hearing on the measure but has not yet voted on it.

Increasing access to parole information

The Senate passed an amended version of a bill that would require the Department of Corrections to publish statistics about parole and lengthen the time period for crime victims and additional family members to receive notices about parole.

The new version removes earlier provisions that would have required posting public meeting notices online and prohibited the Parole Commission from meeting in closed session to consider parole, probation or extended supervision applications.

More: Wisconsin Parole Commission ordered to turn over records on 2022 parolees after lawsuit from conservative website

More: What to know about parole, truth in sentencing and when people can get out of prison in Wisconsin

The Senate passed the bill with 29 yes votes and four no votes, all from Democrats. It now goes back to the Assembly, where an earlier version passed with all Republicans in favor and most Democrats against.

Tax-exempt savings accounts for people with disabilities

The Senate approved a bill that would require the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) to implement a federally-created ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) program, which allows people with disabilities to have tax-exempt savings accounts to cover expenses like housing and employment.

Wisconsin is one of only four states that does not have its own program or work with another state to make accounts available, according to the bill's authors. While Wisconsin residents open accounts through other states, participation is five to ten times lower than in neighboring states, the DFI found.

The bipartisan bill passed out of committee with unanimous support, and passed with only three objections in the Senate and no debate.

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura. Hope Karnopp can be reached at HKarnopp@gannett.com and on Twitter at @hopekarnopp.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Senate votes to tighten unemployment benefits