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Amid delays, GOP lawmakers order audit into Wisconsin’s process for granting professional licenses

Democrats called the probe a waste of time, saying understaffing is to blame

Wisconsin State Capitol
Laura Pavin/WPR

Republican lawmakers are ordering an audit of Wisconsin’s process for issuing professional licenses following complaints from people forced to wait weeks or months for credentials, many of which are needed to start a job or get a promotion.

As of last year, the average wait time to for a license to be approved or denied was 45 days, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services. But people are often waiting even longer, said Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, who co-chairs Wisconsin’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

“We have way too many people waiting way too long for licenses,” he said during a Tuesday morning news conference. “We need to understand what the issues are and get this resolved.”

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Democrats on the committee opposed the audit, calling it a waste of time. They blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for not fully granting previous requests from the agency to hire more staff to process applications and to answer questions at call centers. Last year, Republicans made licensing delays into a campaign issue by accusing Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who won reelection in November, of poor leadership.

The Department of Safety and Professional Services oversees more than 240 types of licenses for professions ranging from nurses to funeral directors to certified public accountants. Most of the department’s budget comes from licensing fees, but the agency can’t spend its $47 million surplus on hiring more staff or upgrading technology without legislative approval.

Marc Herstand, who leads the National Association of Social Workers, told the committee under-staffing has long plagued Wisconsin’s licensing agency. He says the situation became particularly bad in recent years, though he said there’s been improvement since Wisconsin shifted to the online LicensE system in May 2022.

“I had members lose jobs they were offered, not able to apply for positions they wanted or forced to do a lower level of work at their agency because they’re not officially licensed,” he said. “Agencies had to set up waiting lists for clients needing mental health services because of this backlog of applications.”

As part of the newly-authorized probe, nonpartisan state auditors plan to look into issues including Wisconsin’s timeline for granting licenses, funding and staffing levels in the department and how Wisconsin’s process compares to best practices from other states.

The joint committee on Tuesday also authorized an audit into remote work by executive branch state employees. Among other topics, state auditors proposed looking into IT security and how Wisconsin might save money by using less office space.

There are about 70,000 full-time equivalent positions authorized across all of Wisconsin’s executive branch agencies, and the state’s Department of Administration oversees about 6 million square feet of office space, according to the Legislative Audit Bureau. Since the pandemic struck, the DOA has opened hoteling office space, where workers at some facilities can reserve desks on a short-term, as-needed basis. And recently, a report by the agency recommended cutting down office space by 10 percent over the next decade.