Bipartisan bickering and blame begins before the State of the State 

Gov. Evers’ annual  address split between themes of common ground and progressive vision

Governor Tony Evers greets Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Attorney General Josh Kaul before he begins his second State of the State address on Jan. 22, 2020 Photo by Melanie Conklin
Governor Tony Evers greets Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Attorney General Josh Kaul before he begins his second State of the State address on Jan. 22, 2020 Photo by Melanie Conklin

Before Gov. Tony Evers entered the Assembly chamber to give his second State of the State address on Wednesday evening, the debate around the Capitol was whether his message would offer a conciliatory olive branch of bipartisanship or an impassioned vision of progressive principles launched from his bully pulpit. 

Gov. Tony Evers gives his second State of the State address on 1/22/20 Photo by Melanie Conklin
Gov. Tony Evers gives his second State of the State address on 1/22/20 Photos by Melanie Conklin

Republicans were betting on the latter as they held a news conference four hours before Evers began to speak to complain about how partisan Evers has been.   

Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Senate President Roger Roth (R-Appleton), Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and the co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), took turns at the microphone, each weaving their comments around a single theme: Republicans’ bipartisanship and Democrats lack of it.

Rep. John Nygren gives the GOP perspective on the past year before the evenings State of the State speech. L to R: Sen. Alberta Darling, Majority Leader Jim Steineke, Nygren, Speaker Robin Vos, Senate President Roger Roth.
Rep. John Nygren gives the GOP perspective on the past year before the evenings State of the State speech. L to R: Sen. Alberta Darling, Majority Leader Jim Steineke, Nygren, Speaker Robin Vos, Senate President Roger Roth.

Just in case any reporters did not understand the concept, Vos began by reading the definition of bipartisanship out of Webster’s dictionary. 

“That’s the contrast we’re facing here today,” added Nygren. “We’re trying to work together across the aisle for the benefit of all Wisconsinites. I think it’s time that the administration understand that we are a co-equal branch of government, and that we have a vital role to play as well. So I look forward to that new change of outlook from the administration in the near future.”

In his State of the State address, Evers spoke of many successes as a joint effort. As he began handing out kudos for accomplishments, he praised numerous Republican and Democratic legislators. He downplayed any divide. 

   As I reflect on my first year in office, although there were setbacks and occasional political posturing  — what I call ‘huffing and puffing’ — we also had a lot of success, and I am proud of everything we accomplished in just a year’s time.”

Evers praised bipartisan measure ensuring Medicaid covers telehealth services, making certain people with disabilities can vote and training truck drivers to help prevent human trafficking. 

That said, he did get in a few partisan talking points, including this comment early on: “This past year we also brought science back to the state of Wisconsin. And we acknowledged that climate change exists, and it’s a threat we need to start taking seriously.”

Evers also jabbed the Republicans for turning away $1.6 billion to expand Medicaid. He pointed out other contrasts between himself and former Gov. Scott Walker (without naming names), such as his push for inclusion and respect for state workers, and his decision to restart the state pardon process and work on criminal justice reform. “For the first time in more than eight years, a governor stepped foot inside of one of our correctional facilities — and actually, not just one, I visited six.” 

A focus on farms

The central topic of Evers’ speech was supporting Wisconsin’s struggling agricultural economy, including an announcement that he would call for a special session next week to deal with the farm crisis. He pointed out that Wisconsin is losing two dairy farms a day and now leads the nation in farm bankruptcies.

Gov. Tony Evers gets sparse applause from the Republican side of the aisle during his State of the State address. Photo by Melanie Conklin
Gov. Tony Evers gets sparse applause from the Republican side of the aisle during his State of the State address.
Photo by Melanie Conklin

Rural Wisconsin is a topic Republicans also care about — so his extensive proposal could be considered a bipartisan opportunity. But his push also backed Republicans, who were already annoyed by his recent letter assigning them “homework” and his attempts to force a previous special session on gun control, into a corner.

Rejecting a special session called to help rural Wisconsin — which is represented by many Republican legislators — would put them in a bind were they to ignore this call as well.

And Evers did take a shot at the Trump administration’s farm policy and Ag Secretary Sonny Purdue’s controversial quote from the World Dairy Expo, where he appeared to  dismiss small farms. 

Said Evers:  “We’ve endured the consequences of unnecessary and unproductive tariffs and trade wars. And we’ve heard people who’ve said there’s no place for small farms anymore—they ought to go big or bust.”

At the 2020 State of the State address, legislators applaud as Gov. Tony Evers introduces Wisconsin citizens sitting in the gallery. Photo by Melanie Conklin
At the 2020 State of the State address, legislators applaud as Gov. Tony Evers introduces Wisconsin citizens sitting in the gallery.
Photo by Melanie Conklin

The governor’s three-pronged rural economic plan includes:

  • Establishing an Office of Rural Prosperity within the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation as a one-stop shop of resources tailored to rural communities, businesses and workers
  • Creating a Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to study how to best support rural Wisconsin communities
  • Holding a special session to take up a package of farm bills including:
    • Creating the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports to broaden markets for milk exports
    • Increasing staff at UW-Extension to partner with farmers
    • Establishing a Farm-to-Fork program getting products directly to schools, colleges, hospitals and local business
    • Launching a farmer mental health program to coordinate local and regional peer support and one-on-one counseling for farmers

“I am not under the misguided belief that what I’m proposing today is the silver bullet,” said Evers. “In the coming months, it’s going to take more listening than talking to hear from our farmers and our rural communities about how we can continue to invest in agricultural and rural prosperity across our state. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start today.”

Stepping in on redistricting

Robin Vos addresses media gaggle after State of the State speech 2020
Speaker Robin Vos addresses a media gaggle after the governor’s State of the State speech, Jan 22, 2020

A second major initiative Evers announced — one that has been proposed year after year by Democrats in the legislature and received support in referenda all across Wisconsin — is nonpartisan redistricting. Evers said he will appoint a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw “The People’s Maps.” Members will travel around the state gathering testimony and information before doing so.

“I believe, and Wisconsinites do, too, that people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” said Evers. 

Given that Republicans have never given these bills so much as a public hearing, this is an example Evers using the executive bully pulpit. Republican reaction to the initiative in a gaggle with reporters after the speech was hostile. Vos shot down the idea of redistricting coming from anywhere other than the legislature and slammed Evers for using executive orders more frequently than past governors. 

Get to work

With Republican leadership only planning to meet for a few more times before going home for the year, it remains to be seen if the work that Evers laid out can get done. In addition to the major areas above, other initiatives he outlined were: 

  • Creating a Task Force on Student Debt.
  • Addressing youth vaping.
  • Capping the cost of insulin.
  • Closing the dark store tax loophole that allows big-box stores to pay lower taxes.
  • Getting PFAS out of our water.
The UW Marching Band in the Assembly Chambers
Gov. Evers; State of the State address concludes with “On Wisconsin” performed by the UW Marching Band 1/22/20

Evers’ speech concluded with a tacit reprimand aimed at the Republican legislative leaders, who have said they only plan to stay in session through February in the Assembly and March in the Senate — and meet for only two or three more session days during that time.

“We’ve got work to do,” Evers told the legislators. “There’s no rest for the elected, folks, and we’ve got a lot to get done before anyone takes a vacation.”

Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.