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Evers, licensing agency seek more funding and staff as wait time for licenses has been reduced

Evers administration says licenses are being reviewed within 3 to 5 days

Gov. Tony Evers stands in front of the assembly and gives 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

Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Safety and Professional Services, or DSPS, are asking the state’s Republican-controlled finance committee for more staff and funding as they say the agency has reduced the amount of time to process licenses.

The Evers administration unveiled a new licensing dashboard on Thursday that shows the agency is reviewing applications within three to five days, meaning applicants who meet all requirements can receive licenses in less than a week on average. The processing time for applications is down from 38 days earlier this year and a high of about 80 days in 2021 as the agency faced a backlog of licenses for nurses and other professionals.

“I’m proud of our administration’s ongoing efforts to ensure state government works for everyone, including modernizing outdated processes and systems, reducing barriers, and improving efficiency so Wisconsinites across our state can get help and access critical services when they need it most,” Evers said in a statement.

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DSPS oversees 245 types of licenses for professions including nurses, therapists and plumbers. The agency issues more than 70,000 new credentials and 400,000 license renewals each biennium, according to the Department of Administration. Data from the agency’s dashboard shows it has issued 38,845 licenses so far this year compared to 30,200 licenses issued in all of 2018.

DSPS Secretary Designee Dan Hereth said the agency processed nearly 200 percent more licenses in the first six months of this year compared to the same time span in 2018.

“Our review times are far less than seven days,” Hereth told WPR. “I’m extremely grateful the governor has invested so much into our people, our process and our tools. This request is about making sure that progress and that investment continues through the end of the biennium.”

The agency has come under scrutiny in the last year as people have waited weeks or months for the state to process their applications. In February, Republican lawmakers ordered an audit of Wisconsin’s process for issuing professional licenses, and the audit’s findings are still pending. Last year, GOP lawmakers pointed to delays at the agency as an example of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ failed leadership during his reelection campaign. Voters reelected Evers in November.

The agency is using federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund 21 contracted staff at its call center, but the funding is set to run out at the end of next year. The governor proposed to increase funding for the agency under the current two-year budget by nearly 24 percent or around $14.7 million and add nearly 80 positions. Republicans scaled back that request to 17.75 positions, including seven full-time positions to support licensing.

The Department of Administration has approved the agency’s request to add 5.25 positions to provide licensing and support, as well as additional funding to retain 7.25 positions. The agency would receive more than $1.4 million in funding through fiscal year 2024-25 unless the Joint Committee on Finance objects to the request by Sept. 22. The bulk of the funding would go toward retaining the agency’s contracted staff.

The department has a total of 37 contract positions for license processing and its call center. The agency plans to cut 12 of those positions once federal funding expires in December of next year.

State Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, sits on the finance committee. She said she hopes her Republican colleagues include funding for the agency that she called long overdue.

“It would be really problematic for Wisconsinites if the department has to reduce staffing because what that means is longer wait times for physical therapists and nurses to get their licenses,” Roys said. “That means more patients are not able to be seen. It means that the business and professional licensees are going to wait longer for their renewals, and it will be an overall drag on the economy.”

Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers on the committee, including Committee Co-Chair Rep. Mark Born of Beaver Dam criticized the agency for delays in processing licenses. He questioned why Hereth didn’t seek out funding or more positions from lawmakers. Hereth took over as head of the agency last summer when former Secretary Dawn Crim left amid mounting backlash over the agency’s backlog. Hereth told lawmakers that it was his understanding that “staff were not on the table” when previous requests were made.

The committee’s co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, had no comment about the request Thursday. Staff for Born did not immediately respond to an email on Thursday afternoon.

The agency has around 240 employees, but not all of them are devoted to processing licenses. Most of the department’s budget comes from licensing fees.