Republicans launch audit to review licensing delays, staffing at DSPS

NOW: Republicans launch audit to review licensing delays, staffing at DSPS

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Republican lawmakers launched an audit to review the state's professional licensing agency that's faced mounting criticism over licensing delays and experienced pushback over their request for additional staff, resources to keep up with demand.

On Tuesday, Republicans on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted to have the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau examine the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, an agency that licenses and regulates more than 240 professions including barbers, doctors, and social workers.

The action by the committee comes after numerous people across the state shared similar experiences of waiting weeks, months or in some instances a year trying to get their license approved to start or advance their career.

"We have way too many people waiting too long for licenses," said Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), co-chair of the audit committee. "This is keeping workers away from us. We need to look at reciprocity."

Before the committee hearing, Democrats asked the co-chairs to implement a mitigation plan to ensure auditors would not "impede or divert staff resources" from processing licenses or impact the departments ongoing modernizations efforts, such as improving the application process and upgrading their outdated software system.

"The more time we take people off getting those licenses to ask these questions, the more we're going to wait to get those licenses granted," said Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton). "I think they have to realize that's a problem we have right now."

Co-chairs Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) and Wittke rejected Democrats' request.

Auditors will investigate complaints from applicants, staffing levels, the average wait time for processing licenses, and assess how DSPS processing system aligns with other states among other things.

Before the backlog began, DSPS struggled with staffing shortages and antiquated processing systems dating back to 1997. Once the pandemic hit, officials said the agency became even more overwhelmed.

The delays have caused some individuals to lose out on job opportunities because they couldn't obtain a license in time or were forced to work at lower-level positions while waiting for their application to be approved.

Last year, a Legislative Council Study Committee on Occupational Licenses held hearings to review complaints filed against DSPS from constituents and other organizations. The agency indicated the average time to process a license was 79 days in 2020-2021 and 46 days in 2021-2022.

Since CBS 58 and other news outlets reported on the backlog, DSPS made improvements. They now offer an online application process that can inform applicants of their status and whether additional documentation is required.

"This is a big improvement and while I'm pleased we have made this progress with our new system I still want to do better," said Dan Hereth, secretary-designee of DSPS.

Hereth inherited the licensing challenges at DSPS after former secretary Dawn Crim stepped down in August.

During his testimony to the committee, Hereth said he's willing to work with the audit bureau and noted steps have been taken to address concerns such as how long it takes for a customer to connect with an agent.

"As our call center experience shows, the more people can do more work and I want more employees doing more work for the people of Wisconsin."

Hereth added more funding for additional staff could have a significant impact. DSPS currently has about a $47 million surplus, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. However, DSPS cannot spend that without approval from lawmakers.

It comes as budget deliberations are set to begin with Gov. Tony Evers scheduled to unveil his two-year spending plan on Feb. 15.

During the 2021-2023 biennium, DSPS requested 10 additional staff members, but received funding for two part-time employees, one full-time staffer and $5 million for systems upgrades.

This year, DSPS is asking to fund 40 positions -- 16 of which will work directly to process license requests. It remains to be seen whether the GOP-controlled budget committee will approve their budget proposal.

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