Capitol evening 083122 02-12222022194228 (copy)

Wisconsin voters will be asked to weigh in on whether childless, able-bodied adults should be required to search for work in order to receive public assistance.

Wisconsin voters will be asked to weigh in on whether childless, able-bodied adults should be required to search for work in order to receive public assistance.

The state Assembly voted 62-35 to place the question on the April 4 ballot as an advisory referendum — a vote that is informative as a measure of public opinion but is not legally binding. The Senate approved the measure on a 22-10 vote on Tuesday, with Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska, joining Republicans to pass it. The ballot proposal, a joint resolution that requires passage by both chambers of the Legislature, does not require the governor’s approval.

The resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — would place this question on the ballot: “Shall able-bodied, childless adults be required to look for work in order to receive taxpayer-funded welfare benefits?"

“As you look around the state of Wisconsin, we are facing a lot of challenges, but one of the ones that I hear especially from employers is we have a workforce crisis. If you go to any business in the state, they are looking for workers,” Vos told reporters during a news conference before the vote.

Vos noted that Wisconsin’s labor participation rate — 64.9% in the most recently available federal data — is lower than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We have more people on the sidelines,” Vos said. “We have to do everything that we possibly can to get them off.”

Although the referendum is nonbinding, Vos said it will send a message to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that Republicans will continue to pursue similar policies, and a message to the federal government that it should allow such a requirement for recipients of BadgerCare.

Democrats derided the proposal.

“Our constituents elected us to work towards solutions to the challenges they face when they wake up every morning, in every corner of our state. Today, we had the opportunity to do that work. Instead, we debated a politically-motivated, cynical advisory referendum that will only further divide us,” said Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, in a statement.

Wisconsin currently has a work search requirement for FoodShare (the state’s food stamp program), but the federal government does not allow it to implement such a requirement for BadgerCare (the state’s health care program for low-income residents).

A state requirement for jobless people to be searching for work in order to receive unemployment benefits was suspended by Evers during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as scores of Wisconsinites were laid off from their jobs.

In May 2021, lawmakers on the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules reinstated the requirement. The decision from lawmakers came as the state’s largest business lobby argued the requirement was keeping people out of the state’s workforce.

Also on Thursday, Republicans rejected an effort by Democrats to replace the public assistance referendum with one asking voters to weigh in on whether the state’s abortion ban should be repealed. 

The advisory referendum will be included on the same ballot as the high-profile state Supreme Court election, which will determine the court’s ideological balance as conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority.

Cap Times reporter Jack Kelly contributed to this story.

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