Thousands of Wisconsinites impacted by department backlog
Dogged by a huge backlog for occupational licenses and complaints by applicants and lawmakers, Wisconsin’s Department of Safety and Professional Services must submit to an audit of its operations.
An all-Republican majority of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted Tuesday to direct the Legislative Audit Bureau to examine an agency that fields between 5,000 and 10,000 calls every week. The LAB website projects the expected release of the audit in fall 2023.
Dozens of applicants and leaders of trade associations representing licensed professions have been frustrated by months-long licensing delays, long lapses in communication and requests for materials that applicants had already submitted.
The delays force would-be workers to sit on the sidelines after they graduate or move to Wisconsin from another state, unable to work in their field, serve others with their skills or earn paychecks commensurate with their education and experience.
But there is a bigger, systemic issue the Badger Institute has documented for years. Wisconsin requires hundreds of occupations to be licensed, a trend that has grown dramatically in recent decades. There are now more than 200 credentialing requirements that aspiring workers must secure from the state before they can practice their occupations.
The delays are preventing people from working who likely could work with less restrictive or no certification. It’s hard to justify months-long licensing delays for desperately needed physical and mental health professionals when DSPS is also processing licenses for auctioneers, landscape architects, manicurists and butter makers. The Legislature should consider alternatives to licensing these occupations or eliminate such requirements altogether.
A good place to start would be occupations licensed in Wisconsin but not in other states. Wisconsin is one of only 12 states to require bartenders to secure a license. If bartenders don’t need state permission in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, do they really need a license in the Badger State?
Several states use sunset laws to determine if licensing is justified for protecting the health and safety of residents — the reason for licensing an occupation. If these reviews demonstrate that a license is not or is no longer justified, lawmakers can say no to a new license and remove existing ones from the books.
Wisconsin should follow the lead of 18 other states that have over the past five years changed their laws to allow professionals moving from others states to continue working with the licenses they got from those states. Not only would this lessen Wisconsin’s licensing burden, but it would encourage workers to move here.
“Residents across Wisconsin have raised concerns about their inability to obtain a license timely in order to gain employment or move up the ladder of current employment,” committee co-chair Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) told the Badger Institute. “As we struggle with worker shortages, it is clear that a better and more efficient licensing process would benefit workers and employers. The common notion that we should grow government and all the issues will be resolved just doesn’t cut it if systems and internal processes don’t work.
“This audit is an important step to better understand where and how DSPS functions and to help provide insight for improving their customer service to licensees across Wisconsin.”
“The department is currently issuing more licenses, more quickly than ever before,” DSPS Secretary Dan Hereth told committee members. “In particular, we have seen significant improvement in average processing times of applications over the past 12 months.”
State auditor Joe Chrisman told the committee Tuesday the audit would begin with the formation of DSPS in 2011. Among other things, Chrisman said an audit could:
- assess trends in the number of licenses DSPS issued and renewed in recent years;
- analyze trends in funding and staffing for license processing;
- perform a workload analysis at each step of the licensure process and determine the timeliness with which DSPS issued and renewed licenses;
- review the license applications and renewals awaiting processing, the average wait time for processing, and the factors that affect wait time;
- evaluate the number of calls and the performance of DSPS’s call center in recent years;
- consider the experiences of individual applicants for licensure or renewal to identify patterns in license processing;
- assess how DSPS tracks license processing and review actions DSPS has taken to improve license processing;
- review the role of the boards, councils, and advisory committees in license processing; and
- compare DSPS’s licensure processing with that used by other states and identify best practices.
In a letter to the co-chairs, committee Democrats who voted against the audit said it would divert resources from the department’s core mission, exacerbating licensing delays. They accused Republicans of not providing adequate resources or staffing that would allow DSPS to resolve the backlog.
“DSPS needs additional staffing, resources and support, and that will require legislative actions and approval,” the letter said.
Committee co-chair Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) told the Badger Institute that the in the last two budgets, the legislature has authorized 94% of Gov. Evers’ recommended full-time equivalent positions for DSPS.
“If the department really believes more staff would fix their problems, they could have additional staff authorized within 14 working days by submitting a request to the Joint Committee on Finance,” Wimberger said.
“Our state’s professionals are stuck in limbo while waiting for the Department of Safety and Professional Services to approve their licenses,” Wimberger said during the hearing. “Families, businesses and our state’s industries deserve answers on how this process can be improved. Government should not be a barrier to gainful employment.”
Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said the audit will be critical in providing the Legislature with a better understanding of the cause of the delays that “are harming the livelihoods of those that rely on state-mandated professional licensure” and identify solutions.
“While DSPS blames the Legislature for the agency being underfunded and understaffed, we know that they are unable to fill the positions they do have and have not requested higher compensation to attract new workers—indicating there is more to these challenges than simply lack of funding or position authority,” Born said.
An audit may be helpful in identifying practices or procedures that can improve the experience for workers governed by DSPS regulations. But if policymakers are serious about addressing the backlog, they need to check — and reverse — the dramatic growth of professions requiring state licensure.
For more information about the need for licensing reform in Wisconsin, visit badgerinstitute.org/licensing.
Michael Jahr is the Vice President of Communications and Government Relations at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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