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Evers asks for more staff to speed up processing of professional licensing

Wisconsin's Department of Safety and Professional Services has faced complaints from people waiting weeks or months for occupational credentials

Gov. Tony Evers stands at a podium during a speech.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the biennial budget message Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

As Wisconsin faces complaints from people waiting weeks for months for professional licenses, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is asking to hire more staff to speed up the process.

Included in his recently-submitted budget request to state lawmakers are nearly 80 additional full-time-equivalent positions for the Department of Safety and Professional Services, an agency that oversees building safety as well as more than 200 types of credentials for occupations ranging from nurses to barbers to certified public accountants.

The proposed staffing boost is badly needed, said Marc Herstand, who leads the National Association of Social Workers. He says he’s heard from social workers who are deterred from working in Wisconsin because they can’t afford to wait for extended time periods before they get the credentials needed to start a job.

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“Social workers aren’t independently wealthy,” he said. “They really need to go to work quickly, because they don’t have a lot of money in savings”

The majority of DSPS’ budget comes from fees for license approvals and renewals, and the agency ended last fiscal year with a $47 million surplus. Herstand says it’s “infuriating” that Wisconsin lawmakers haven’t allocated more of that revenue to processing applications more quickly.

“We have such a crisis in our mental health needs in Wisconsin,” he said. “There’s no excuse for the Legislature not providing the department with the staff they need.”

Evers’ budget includes $73.9 million for DSPS in fiscal year 2024, a 21 percent increase over the current fiscal year. That involves $968,700 for 16 new staffers to process applications and $793,000 for 14 additional “customer communication” positions. He’s also asking for $113,200 in the next fiscal year to hire two full-time equivalent “license navigators,” who will help individuals, employers and higher education institutions understand what credentials are needed to get licenses. And there’s $341,200 requested for five staffers, who will work on license “flexibility,” such as by exploring agreements so that licenses can be used in multiple states.

State lawmakers typically approve a budget before the new fiscal year starts July 1, but it’s not clear how many of Evers’ proposals will survive. Republicans control Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate, and many have criticized Evers’ plan as fiscally irresponsible.

In total, Evers is asking to spend over $103 billion over two years. The governor wants to add more than 800 full-time equivalent positions in total, but state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has questioned whether increasing staff will solve Wisconsin’s problems.

“It’s not always a matter of just adding more people if the management behind the people and the practices they are employing are also not working,” Vos told reporters after Evers’ budget address.

In response to a question about Evers’ proposal for the agency overseeing licensing, a spokesperson for state Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said the Senate’s majority leader is still reviewing the budget.

“It remains a bit too soon to say on what a final number may look like,” the spokesperson wrote in an email Friday.

Earlier this month, Republican members of a joint legislative committee ordered an audit into Wisconsin’s process for issuing professional licenes. State Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, was among the Democrats on the committee who tried unsuccessfully to block the audit, calling it a waste of time for DSPS.

Carpenter called it hypocritical for Republicans to blast the Evers’ administration over licensing delays when they’ve blocked previous requests to more fully staff Wisconsin’s licensing agency.

“Republicans like to see government fail because they don’t like government, per se, or overall, and so they tend to do things like this to make government look bad,” he said