Gov. Evers’ pre-pandemic mind

“A powerful snapshot of a point in time, just before everything changed”

Gov. Tony Evers giving his 1/22/20 State of the State speech with topics he addressed in thought bubble.
Gov. Tony Evers giving his 1/22/20 State of the State speech with topics he addressed in thought bubble.

Gov. Tony Evers had a lot on his mind on Jan. 22 of this year. He had plans for the rest of the legislative session, for the state, for the future, for all the places he wanted to visit.

What a different state, and world, we live in, less than six months later.

Traveling back to pre-pandemic times is something a team of savvy data analysts have figured out how to do, comparing speeches by different  U.S. governors, lest we all forget what things used to be like.

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

The Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed the content of Evers’ State of the State speech, which he gave before an audience of legislators, Supreme Court justices, cabinet secretaries and guests all packing the Assembly chambers and galleries. (No social distancing would have been possible.) Evers began by talking about all the time he spent traveling around the state and visiting with people in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties (also not possible now).

He shared his vision for 2020.

“From nonpartisan redistricting and investing in our rural communities to addressing youth vaping and capping the cost of insulin to closing the dark store loophole and getting PFAS out of our water, we’ve got work to do,” stated Evers in his second State of the State address since taking office in 2018.

Currently, there is not much public discussion of those topics, as COVID-19 had forced a laser focus on public health and an economy that went from robust to freefall, destroying government and personal budgets, not to mention health and lives.

Here is a flashback:

According to Pew, Evers spent the most time in his speech on the economy, 32.7% of the speech, compared with 17.4% for all governors. Other top categories he highlighted were voting and ethics (11.9%) and public safety and justice (10%). Those were also the three topics where he exceeded the average percent of time dedicated to discussing each issue by other governors.

Source: Pew analysis of governors’ 2020 State of the State addresses showing the results for Gov. Tony Evers compared to the average of all governors.
Source: Pew analysis of governors’ 2020 State of the State addresses showing the results for Gov. Tony Evers compared to the average of all governors.

Two topics that stand out prominently on re-reading the speech are non-partisan redistricting to reverse gerrymandering and aid to help struggling farmers. The latter remains a focus — along with all other small businesses that are hurting due to the pandemic, particularly because the Legislature never finished its work on the agricultural bills. 

Redistricting had received  much less attention until Thursday when Evers announced that he is accepting applications for members of  The People’s Maps Commission, which was announced in his State of the State speech. He ordered a group “comprised of the people of our state — not elected officials, lobbyists or political party officials — to draw maps and present them to the Legislature.” The members will be picked by a panel of three retired justices.

Working with the words

Pew Charitable Trusts’ 50 state data visualization project did its analysis of the annual speeches by length — in terms of both time and word count — dedicated to a topic. The point was to show what was on the minds of the 44 governors who gave an annual address this year before April.

Two addresses delivered after mid-March, when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) and Arkansas Gov.Asa Hutchinson (R), were devoted almost entirely to the pandemic’s impact on public health and its economic consequences.

We launched the project as governors began delivering their addresses in January,” says Melissa Maynard, Pew’s senior officer on fiscal and economic policy who came up with the idea for the project. At the time, we were simply curious what sort of insights we might be able to derive about state budgets and governors’ priorities by visualizing what governors said in their speeches. We hadn’t done anything like this in the past.”

The researchers began breaking down the speeches, looking to refine them in a quantitative way to show what governors wanted to happen in a period of “widespread economic stability and revenue growth to lay out wide-ranging agendas and catch up on long-delayed priorities,” the report states.

But instead of the data being used as originally planned, COVID-19 collided with the research, as it did with most aspects of life as we know it.

“The central insight is how drastically COVID-19 upended states’ budgets and governors’ agendas, which of course we never could have anticipated when we began our research,” adds Maynard. “But the data offers a powerful snapshot of a point in time just before everything changed.”

In other discussions back in January, it looked as though Wisconsin had a $812 million budget surplus that the governor and the Legislature were beginning to debate how to spend. The surplus, which was supposed to exist through mid-2021, has likely disappeared in what Pew calls a “stunning reversal” of state fortunes. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo released Thursday showed that revenue taken in so far this fiscal year are $749 million behind the previous fiscal year. There will no be a clear economic picture of the fiscal ramifications of COVID-19 until late August, according to LFB Director Bob Lang, after the July 15 extended deadline for tax filings.

Pre-pandemic speeches showcased priorities that now face long odds of becoming reality anytime soon” summed up the study. 

Thought bubble of topics in Tony Evers' speech
Source: Pew analysis of governors’ 2020 State of the State addresses showing the results for Gov. Tony Evers.

Evers’ agenda back then

According to Pew, Evers spent the most time in his speech on the economy, 32.7% of the speech, compared with 17.4% for all governors. Much of that was spent promoting his call for a special session on agriculture and helping struggling dairy farmers.

Other top categories he highlighted were voting and ethics (11.9%) and public safety and justice (10%). Those were also the three topics where he exceeded the average percent of time allocated by other governors according to the study.

The analysis shows that the only governor to spend a higher percent of time on the economy was in Hawaii (New Mexico was a virtual tie). Evers dedicated a larger portion of his speech to voting and ethics than any other governor. On the flip side, the only state leaders to spend less time on K-12 education were from Nebraska and California.

None of these issues has disappeared, but in January Evers dedicated about 10% of his speech to the category of ‘health,’ lower than the average of states, which was closer to 15%.

Now, most every press conference Evers holds is with the Department of Health Services and done virtually rather than in person. The primary focus is on COVID-19 and the health and wellbeing of Wisconsin citizens in a pandemic that has ushered in mass unemployment and economic insecurity.

The state agenda revolves around debates about masks, online classes, voter safety, public gatherings and catching up on processing unemployment claims. It’s a fair guess that the theme bubbles now would be one gigantic health bubble and another sizable economy bubble.

Sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and widespread Black Lives Matter protests, there’s also significant amount of discussion of racial justice issues, police brutality and the disparities, particularly those laid bare by COVID-19.

Another issue Evers raised in the speech was climate change — which is something Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has been holding listening sessions on recently, wrapping up with one July 9 at 6 pm and a final listening session on July 15.

“This past year we also brought science back to the state of Wisconsin,” Evers declared in his State of the State address. “And we acknowledged that climate change exists, and it’s a threat we need to start taking seriously. Lieutenant Governor Barnes is the chair of the Climate Change Task Force, working with local governments, industry and business leaders, and people from across our state on our environment, stewardship and sustainability.”

A shot across the bow at the Legislature had little effect, given how infrequently the group met this year. At the time Evers said, “There’s no rest for the elected, folks, and we’ve got a lot to get done before anyone takes a vacation.” After a legislative session ends in any even-numbered year, legislators often don’t return to the floor to meet until the following January. In 2020 the session ended just about a month after Evers’ speech. As a result, dozens of bills died that were never passed by both the Assembly and Senate.

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A final note on a State of the State quest not likely to be fulfilled this year, was Evers’ lament that Barnes made it to all 72 counties just days before the governor was able to accomplish that same goal in 2019. Evers said he planned to win the race to all the counties in 2020.

“One of the best parts of my job is getting out of the Capitol and visiting with people all across our state. And holy mackerel, that’s what we did,” Evers said. “Lt. Gov. Barnes and I both visited all 72 Wisconsin counties this past year. Actually, the bad news is that Lt. Gov. Barnes and I raced to see who could be the first to visit all 72 counties. He beat me by about five days. But the good news is that we’re just a few weeks into 2020, and I’ve already got a head start on him this year.”

Details on the methodology of the study can be found on The Pew Charitable Trusts website. 

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.