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Republicans approve audit of Wisconsin diversity, equity and inclusion practices

Wisconsin Examiner

The Republican-led Legislative Joint Audit Committee voted to approve the start of an audit Tuesday into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities across state agencies. (Screenshot via Wiseye)

The Wisconsin Republican-led Legislative Joint Audit Committee approved the start of an audit Tuesday into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) activities across state agencies. 

The action is Republicans’ latest move to target DEI initiatives across the state. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) called for the audit at the end of 2023 — following a deal with the UW system to limit DEI that he described as “just the first step in what will be our continuing efforts to eliminate these cancerous DEI practices.”

State Auditor Joe Chrisman told lawmakers that it will be a “large” audit that would likely go into 2025, around the time that the Legislature begins gearing up to write the next state budget. 

A memo by the Legislative Audit Bureau said the audit would look to determine specific activities performed in compliance with Executive Order 59, which Gov. Tony Evers signed in 2019, requiring state agencies to create equity and inclusion plans and other strategic plans, analyze how much is spent by agencies for DEI activities, including for staffing, and review reported outcomes resulting from DEI activities. 

Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback called Republicans’ decision to launch the audit on social media the “most flagrant and sweeping example to date of Republicans’ efforts in recent years to weaponize” the Legislative Audit Bureau — “an entity that used to enjoy bipartisan credibility and support,” to “conduct purely ideological and politically-driven exercises at the behest of GOP committee chairs.” 

Committee co-chair Sen. Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) called DEI a “neo-Marxian philosophy meant to pit one socially-constructed class against another,” and called diversity, equity and inclusion efforts related to race or ethnicity “rebranded ethnic nationalism.” He added that Evers “divided Wisconsinites into identity groups against each other’s benefit” with his 2019 executive order. 

“I look forward to this audit to uncover the monies that are being spent and tactics used to achieve state-sponsored discrimination against individuals,” Wimberger said.

Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) called Wimberger’s opening comments “kind of far-right wing” and said they made clear the “intention of this audit.” 

Lawmakers heard from Department of Administration Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld and Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman during the public hearing about the audit. 

Department of Administration Secretary Kathy Blumenfeld told lawmakers that DEI has been a priority for the Evers administration, and that it isn’t limited to one agency but is “a principle and a strategy that is executed by every agency and impacts every state employee in the services.”

“The governor recognizes that implementing best practices relating to efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion in our workforce allows us to better recruit and retain talented staff, improve outcomes and deliver effective and efficient services,” Blumenfeld said. 

Blumenfeld pointed to the state’s “Hire Anywhere in Wisconsin” initiative which helps support geographic diversity — hiring beyond Milwaukee and Madison — in the state’s workforce.

“We have a good story to tell and we will watch it unfold through this audit,” Blumenfeld said. 

Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman explained to lawmakers that the UW system uses DEI as a “portion of a holistic” approach to improving student success. 

“We need to encourage more students from underrepresented groups, whether they be first generation students, veterans, students of lower socioeconomic means or racially diverse students, to attend our universities so that we can create a prosperous future for both those individuals and for the state of Wisconsin,” Rothman said. 

Rothman told lawmakers that the UW system would cooperate fully with the audit, but said there were concerns about what the scope of the audit would be in practice. 

“I’m struggling with what the standards of the audit might be, but again, we are willing to work with the committee. We’re willing to work with the state auditor to try to define that,” Rothman said. 

The scope of the audit — and potential impacts of the findings — came up repeatedly in questions by  lawmakers as well. 

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) asked Blumenfeld if she thought the state’s program to hire geographically diverse workers could be affected by the audit. 

“Could this audit impact employment in terms of your ability to retain and recruit different employees from across the state, not including Madison and Milwaukee?” Hong asked. 

DOA head Blumenfeld responded that she would wait to see the audit unfold.

Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview) asked the state auditor about whether the audit would look at whether DEI affects sports programs. 

“As they recruit people into the sports teams, are they under the same guise of the DEI requirements and some of the other impacts?… Are we requiring our sports leadership teams to recruit from diverse groups, from physically disabled groups, from cultural groups?” Macco asked. 

Chrisman, the state auditor, responded that “if that’s a narrative interest, we’ll certainly try to, try to understand it.” 

The committee approved the audit in a party line vote with Hong, Carpenter, Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) and Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) voting against.


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