Gov. Tony Evers paused his 2021 State of the State speech to ask everyone who tuned in to observe a moment of silent remembrance for the more than 5,000 Wisconsinites who have died from COVID-19 over the past year.
“When I delivered my last State of the State address, no one could have predicted the rest of the year would go quite like it did,” said Evers. “What we now know about 2020 is that it was among the most unrelenting years many of us have ever experienced.”
The change from a year ago was apparent as the governor gave this year’s speech remotely via YouTube and Wisconsin Eye, inserting news-reel compilation videos. And Evers certainly did not repeat this line from his 2020 address: “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.”
(Side note: In this year’s speech he did not repeat holy mackerel, but did frequently address the audience as “folks.” His down-home parlance is one thing unaltered by the pandemic.)
Often the speech given annually by a governor is predictable — much like a best-of compilation of the past year’s press releases dumped into one soundtrack.
And the 2021 speech was void of major surprises, yet hearing about Evers’ upcoming focus on nonpartisan redistricting and improving rural broadband access was a refreshing reminder that in the months ahead, eventually the pandemic catastrophe and a turbulent election will not monopolize the news. He offered light at the end of the tunnel — a reminder that as a state Wisconsin will be returned to normal as the vaccine begins reaching the masses.
Evers had three top priorities beyond COVID on his mind:
First he declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” and announced that in the next budget he will allocate nearly $200 million over the biennium for broadband, pointing out the amount will be five times more than the last three of former Gov. Scott Walker’s budgets combined, although he did not cite Walker by name.
“It’s 2021, folks — having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said Evers. “Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet. Period.”
Redistricting and ridding the state of the gerrymandered maps that have dictated the make-up of political representation for a decade was another top goal for Evers, not surprisingly given the frigid relationship he has with GOP leaders, particularly Republicans in the Assembly.
Evers slammed Republicans for drawing the last maps in secret and destroying the records from the process. I was one of several times he hit the Republicans forcefully for what he described as ways they had damaged democracy and governance.
“Tonight, I’m announcing that my biennial budget is going to make sure that the Legislature draws our maps in the light of day, in the public eye and with public input by requiring public meetings for the map-drawing process,” said Evers. “And that’s why we’re also going to prevent the Legislature from destroying records from the map-drawing process, because the people of our state deserve to know how these maps are drawn and by whom. And finally, and most importantly, we are going to require the Legislature to take up The People’s Maps, which will be drawn not by any political party or high-paid consultants, but by the people of our state. Folks, it’s time we look to the people, not politicians, to draw maps that are fair and impartial.”
He did not elaborate on how he could mandate records be retained or force the Legislature to take up the maps, but his budget address is set for mid-February and strengthening open records retention policies for the state would certainly attract attention.
The third area Evers stressed was unemployment, a topic that Republicans have been using as a cudgel since the state was hit with record claims for jobless benefits starting last spring in the pandemic.
He emphasized that Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible for “our broken unemployment system,” and called for a special session of the Legislature to modernize the equipment so that there will never again be backlogs, unanswered calls and delays in claims that led to unemployed people going months without income during the pandemic’s unemployment spike.
“Our antiquated system isn’t quite as old as I am, but it has been around since Richard Nixon was president — this system isn’t new, and these problems aren’t either,” said Evers. “And Republicans and Democrats alike are to blame.”
He dared the Legislature to ignore the session he plans to call, saying “I want to make myself clear: if the Legislature continues to ignore this problem — if they gavel in and gavel out like they’ve done before, if they leave this problem for another administration, another generation — the people of this state will hold them accountable at the ballot box.”
The Speaker responds
Speaker Robin Vos began his response speech, delivered to the Republican members on the Assembly floor, talking about the same topic — unemployment insurance benefit backlogs — continuing months of pummeling the Republicans have been giving Evers over the problem.
Vos stated at the outset of his response that Evers, in his speech, failed to take responsibility and blamed others. He then put the blame for the state’s failures on Evers.
“Unfortunately, there have been some major missteps during this pandemic that need to be solved and a sense of urgency to do so,” said Vos. “A legislative audit found that in the pandemic less than 1% of the calls to the state hotline were answered. … These failures brought unnecessary hardship to Wisconsin families. The Evers administration owes these families answers and in many cases, an apology.”
His second criticism of Evers echoed a more recent point of contention — that Wisconsin should be getting people vaccinated more rapidly and efficiently, which he called “even more concerning” than the unemployment backlog.
“A recent report showed Wisconsin ranked tenth out of 12 Midwest states for vaccine distribution,” said Vos. “Wisconsin doesn’t have a comprehensive rollout plan; few know where and when they’ll get a vaccine. With lives literally on the line, this is unacceptable. … Wisconsin is an embarrassment compared to other states.”
Evers hit Republicans for fighting protections against COVID-19 by taking mask mandates and public health emergency extensions to court, when lives are at stake. The current battle over mask-wearing, even among legislators and staff, continues, with Senate Republicans rebuffing a resolution earlier in the day from Democrats that would have required masks in the Capitol.
Just hours before the State of the State, there was progress on an agreement for a bipartisan COVID response. Senate Republicans, Democrats and Evers worked out a version of a COVID-19 response bill that both parties could live with, which reduces the impact of the GOP’s liability shield for businesses and other entities from COVID-related lawsuits by removing language that allowed that protection even if the businesses willfully flouted public health regulations.
It was celebrated as a moment of bipartisanship, but Vos took a swipe at Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu in his speech that made it clear he would have the Assembly kill that collaboration, saying “It seems some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave into the governor’s demands. We will continue to work to reach a consensus as equals, but never compromise our conservative ideals.” (This shot came despite LeMahieu cancelling his own response speech, letting Vos move forward without competition.)
For his part, on the COVID bill, LeMahieu promoted the compromise as a beginning in a release, saying, “In the coming weeks, we will continue the work to open schools, lift gathering bans and limit the powers of local bureaucrats to shut down churches and Main Street businesses. We remain committed to these principles and committed to ensuring our state’s best days lie ahead.”
While on the topic of conservative ideals, Vos looked ahead to the biennial budget that will need to be crafted this spring and should take effect on July 1, 2021.
“To those listening at home, I promise you: Republicans will fight for another conservative budget, keep spending in check, continue our successful school choice programs, protect the unborn, reduce taxes even further and ensure that free speech still exists in the Badger State moving forward.”
Another line that garnered enthusiastic applause from his caucus members was, “We won’t let government grow out of control and we won’t let socialism take root in our state.”
That’s a wrap
Thanks for tuning in, folks. Now, let’s get to work. Let’s move forward, together.
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) January 13, 2021
Evers closed out his speech calling on nine members of the UW Marching Band to play a rendition of ‘On Wisconsin’ virtually from their own home spaces, in sync via Zoom.
After Vos’ response, the Assembly wrapped up by taking on one more order of business before adjourning. Members passed a resolution honoring Vos as the state’s longest serving speaker — a metric he achieved today, according to his office’s calculations — beating former Democratic Speaker Tom Loftus.