Evers goes big and bold with his Wisconsin budget

From restoring collective bargaining to combating climate change to a massive investment in schools, Republicans pan it as ‘dead on arrival’

Gov. Tony Evers gives his 2021-23 budget address (via YouTube).
Gov. Tony Evers gives his 2021-23 budget address (via YouTube).

Gov. Tony Evers, in a speech outlining his 2021-23 budget proposal Tuesday night, argued for a renewed vision of a state government that can educate, support and invest in people and businesses across the state — a point of view that echoes President Joe Biden’s plan to “build back better” in his proposed American Rescue Plan.

Evers even uses the same alliteration in naming his $91 billion, two-year spending plan the Badger Bounceback Budget. 

Appearing virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked Wisconsin for nearly a year, Evers preemptively made his case to the Republican-controlled Legislature that new investments and programs were important for the state’s recovery and future.

Wisconsin recently received new projections from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau that predicted revenues would be $1.2 billion higher than originally anticipated, giving both the governor and Legislature room to fund top priorities. Evers’ biggest boost would go toward public schools.

He bolstered his argument by including numerous video clips of testimony from Wisconsin citizens describing what they want in a budget from fighting climate change to criminal justice reform to better classrooms.

Predicting an incalcitrant response from a Legislature that hasn’t passed a COVID-19 relief bill in more than 300 days, Evers said he needs legislators to take responsibility for their constituents. 

“Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford to make healthcare more accessible while saving your hard-earned tax dollars,” Evers said. “Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford to fully fund our public schools while cutting taxes at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford to support our farmers, our rural communities and our small businesses while protecting our natural resources and investing in new, clean jobs. Don’t let anyone tell you we can’t spend within our means while still supporting Wisconsinites who need help to recover.”

“Because they’re wrong,” he continued. “We can.”

In a news conference immediately after Evers’ speech, Republicans cast his proposals as political stunts, unreasonable and an affront to cooperation. GOP leaders from both houses said they would start the budget process by tossing out all Evers’ policy proposals from marijuana legalization to restoring collective bargaining for workers to background checks on gun sales.

“This is concerning. It is no way to do a budget process,” said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), Joint Finance Committee co-chair. “And I look forward to jettisoning these ideas from a budget where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.”

Republicans mustered outrage over actions that matched those done by past Republican governors: not letting them see his budget before it was delivered, including policy items in the budget and saying they were “shocked” he inserted “poison pills,” as Speaker Robin Vos put it, “knowing they were dead on arrival.”

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu joins other GOP leaders in giving a budget response. WisEye 2/16/21
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu joins other GOP leaders in giving a budget response. WisEye 2/16/21

And while the GOP legislators complained about increased spending in Evers’ budget — primarily driven by a huge increase in funding for education — Republicans announced they will reject two proposals that would generate more than a billion dollars in revenue: accepting federal money to expand BadgerCare and taxing legal cannabis.

Revving the economy

Even though Republicans recoiled from increases in government spending, Evers said large investments were required to help a state get to a better position post-pandemic than before. That begins, Evers said, with supporting the small and local businesses across Wisconsin that have been battered by the economic effects of COVID-19. 

That requires what Evers said was “a larger state investment into the [Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC)] than the last three budgets combined.” 

Evers is proposing spending $200 million on WEDC to help businesses respond to and recover from the pandemic. To help the state build in the future, he proposed the creation of a $100 million venture capital fund to aid innovation and startups in the state. 

And we know that if we want to come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger than ever, we need to commit to investing in innovation and economic growth, too,” he said.

In his previous budget Evers promised to increase investment in rural parts of the state. This time he proposed more than $40 million in investments in the state’s agricultural industry — anchored by $20 million in spending to help connect the state’s food producers with food banks and pantries as a way to provide farmers with markets while helping the food insecure. 

Aside from aiding farms and businesses, Evers’ budget includes provisions to help local governments and school districts recover from the costs of the pandemic. 

In order to allow local governments to increase revenue, Evers proposed allowing counties to increase sales taxes by an additional 0.5% if approved by voters in a referendum. He also wants to let municipalities with populations of more than 30,000 impose a local sales tax. 

And, in response to major criticism he has received over the delay in processing unemployment claims, Evers is proposing spending nearly $80 million to overhaul the program’s computer system.

Biggest ticket item: education

Evers — for the second straight budget cycle — called for the state to return to a guarantee to fund two-thirds of education budgets across the state, making up the largest portion of his proposal. The governor ran on a promise to return to moving toward having the state — rather than property taxes — fund the majority of the cost of schools as was the case from 1996 – 2003. The former educator argued that Wisconsin government has to restore its efforts to invest in children and support local schools with an increase in spending of more than $1.5 billion.

“I know we can deliver on the promise we make to our kids to leave them a better life and world than the one we inherited,” he said.

He also proposed larger spending on programs for young children and childcare, including a grant program to financially sustain childcare centers and a $500 tax credit to help families pay for the cost of raising children. 

Beyond K-12 education, Evers said he wants to increase the state’s investment in higher education through Wisconsin’s technical colleges and the University of Wisconsin System. With the UW System now under the leadership of former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, Evers proposed putting $190 million into the state’s public university system. 

Evers also said he wants a statewide expansion of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, a program at UW-Madison that provides full tuition for Wisconsin residents who come from low-income homes.

Public input: health, criminal justice, climate change

Some of the loudest messages Evers got during his budget listening sessions were on the issues of making more Wisconsinites able to access health care, criminal justice reform particularly for juveniles and combating climate change.

The budget plan does not miss the opportunity to stake out Evers’ policy vision in those areas.

In a state that has been battered by the pandemic, Evers budget includes proposals to increase spending on health care, including $150 million to increase access to mental health care and $600 million on the state’s long term care infrastructure. He also proposed programs and infrastructure to lower prescription drug prices in the state. Evers plans to expand BadgerCare, fund nursing homes and create new programs to help the mental health of Wisconsinites and make it easier to care for the state’s aging population.

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One high-profile proposal is a plan to legalize both recreational and medicinal cannabis, which Evers says could bring in $165 million in tax revenue — though Republicans shot the proposal down almost immediately. 

While it’s unlikely the state budget will legalize cannabis, Evers did propose other ways to improve the criminal justice system. This is not the first time the governor has proposed fixes to the system, Republicans balked at his attempt to pass legislation last summer, first after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer and again after a Kenosha officer shot Jacob Blake. Instead they created a task force to consider policy recommendations. This most recent attempt to rethink the state’s criminal justice system comes after the task force came under fire in the wake of the release of a private email between Assembly Republicans that expressed their attempt to slow-walk real change.

Now, Evers wants to spend money to overhaul the youth justice system by closing the controversial juvenile corrections systems at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and instead opening smaller, community-based facilities to rehabilitate children in the system. “We’re once again proposing that our juvenile justice system treat youth under 18, with some limited exceptions, as kids, not adults,” said Evers.

For adults in the system, Evers said he wants to spend more money on providing education, training and programs to the incarcerated. 

On climate change, Evers said he wants Wisconsin to be totally carbon free by 2050 and proposed spending money to help school districts move to clean energy, create green jobs and facilitate research and innovation in renewable energy — while protecting the millions of Wisconsin residents threatened by the prospect of increased flooding caused by climate change.

While Republicans said they found little to like the governor’s proposed budget, it received effusive praise from Democrats, as well as environmentalists, educators and clean government groups.

“With the governor’s budget, we can invest in our shared future, our local economy and an equitable recovery from COVID-19, while tackling climate change and building sustainable, resilient communities,” said Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) in a release. “Gov. Evers’ plan to update our aging infrastructure, develop green jobs, support entrepreneurship and invest in climate change mitigation is a great first step in creating good-paying, family-supporting jobs for every Wisconsin worker.”

Tommy Thompson
UW System President Tommy Thompson. (UW System)

The policy proposals Republicans vowed to eliminate were a selling point for Democratic representatives. “Fair maps, affordable healthcare, public school investments and environmental protections are things we can agree on,” said Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton). “Let’s deliver on these  issues and many more through the state budget process so we can move forward together.”

One Republican happy with the budget is former Gov. Tommy Thompson, in his current role as president of the UW System. He praised it in a release: ““Gov. Evers’ budget for the UW System will allow us to tackle some of Wisconsin’s most pressing challenges: expanding online education to meet market demands, tackling prison recidivism to save taxpayer money, leveraging our freshwater resources for economic and environmental gain, expanding opportunity for our neediest students.”

Henry Redman
Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.
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.