Commentary

Who’s got Evers fever?

July 15, 2021 6:45 am
Gov. Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers taste test Wisconsin cheese | Facebook

Gov. Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers taste test Wisconsin cheese | Facebook

State Democrats are crowing about Gov. Tony Evers re-election chances. In an email this week with the subject line “Evers Fever,” the Democratic Party of Wisconsin touts the “bipartisan budget” and GOP tax cuts — for which Evers is taking credit — as well as the $5 million the governor has already raised for his re-election campaign.

Evers has had “one heck of a month,” the Dems declare, “setting him up for early momentum in his re-election campaign.”

The rest of the message from the Democrats focuses on how clever it is of Evers, politically, to claim credit for the tax cut, which disproportionately benefits top earners in Wisconsin and which did not come up as a priority for voters in public hearings held by the Legislature’s budget committee around the state. 

The top priorities that did emerge from those hearings included: Upping the amount of money the state spends on education — particularly special ed, reforming the criminal justice system, expanding access to health care, addressing PFAS pollution and other safe drinking water concerns and economic recovery after the pandemic.

Those priorities were all addressed in Ever’s budget proposal. No wonder the people who testified at the Legislature’s in-person public hearings favored Evers’ budget by a margin of 284 to 30. But Republican legislators threw that budget in the trash and instead imposed a brutal austerity budget on schools and communities throughout the state while rejecting $1.6 billion for the federal Medicaid expansion. They are still sitting on billions of dollars in state revenue they could have used to improve education, clean up pollution and rebuild after the pandemic. Instead of addressing public concerns, they handed out a tax break — average value $7 per week — that no one asked them for.

Gov. Tony Evers post-budget celebration with twist cones | Evers' Faceboo
Gov. Tony Evers post-budget celebration with twist cones | Evers’ Facebook

I suppose there is something gratifying about seeing Evers gaslight the Republicans by taking credit for their stupid and irresponsible tax cut. The Democratic Party, in its “Evers fever” email, is deliberately tweaking the legislative Republicans whom Democrats have repeatedly accused of having “Evers fever” for their obsession with opposing the governor instead of making progress on issues. And the email spends a lot of time rehashing political analysis that explains no one cares about Republican thumb-sucking and whining that the tax cut was their idea.

If it helps him get re-elected and puts him in a position where he can continue to veto some of the Republicans’ truly terrible ideas — like arresting federal agents for trying to enforce federal gun laws, or finding new ways to make it extra hard for people to vote — great.

But let’s not get overheated. The budget was not a win for Evers, and more importantly it was not a win for Wisconsinites. 

The state budget Evers signed was “bipartisan” only because a handful of Democrats in vulnerable seats reluctantly voted for it. Some of them, as my colleague Melanie Conklin reports, even gave floor speeches denouncing it before they voted for it. 

It takes a pretty big step back to get feverishly excited about this budget.

“I think there’s no doubt that, in terms of messaging — because, after all, politics is about spin, it’s about impressions, it’s not about substance —  I think the governor wins,” Mordecai Lee, former Democratic state lawmaker and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in an interview with PBS Wisconsin’s “Here & Now,” quoted in the WisDems’ email.

“He will not be easy to paint as a tax-and-spend liberal,” Barry Burden of the UW-Madison’s Election Research Center added in a Wisconsin Public Radio segment also quoted by the state Dems. “I think (the tax cut) takes the edge off some of the criticism that Republicans would use.”

Talk about playing on the Republicans’ turf. Instead of seizing what the Wisconsin Policy Institute called a “golden opportunity” to address long term needs in the state, as the voters overwhelmingly said they wanted, we are now supposed to celebrate Evers adopting the Republican tax cut and the idea that all people want is $7 in their pockets. Instead of running on his popular ideas, the Democrats are patting themselves on the back for running as Republicans. 

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In the value-free world of politics, it doesn’t matter what reality is, just who can spin it to their advantage. We are supposed to be excited about Evers winning an election based on a Republican plan. It really puts the damper on your enthusiasm about an inspiring second term. Even the $100 million in federal money Evers found for schools to help compensate for the Republicans’ zero-increase budget is having a limited effect.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported on Wednesday that Madison and other school districts in Dane County won’t use their share of the $100 million to address long-term needs. Spokesperson Tim LeMonds explained that since it’s only a one-time infusion of cash, districts “would likely and wisely not use [the funds] for recurring expenses,” he told the State Journal.

Evers got so little in the state budget, he should have threatened a veto, especially since it was his last chance to get a nonpartisan redistricting commission, which could change the course of Wisconsin politics and break the stranglehold of Republicans who get fewer votes statewide yet control the Capitol, former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz writes.

Matt Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign similarly chided Democrats in the Legislature for not putting up a united front and voting against the Republicans’ budget.

But as Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) told me, there is no reason to believe Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wouldn’t refuse to come up with a new budget, risking billions in federal funds and pushing the state into a crisis, just to stick it to Evers. And the Republicans have shown that they are certainly not giving up their gerrymandered map without a fight.

The sad fact is that this terrible budget may be the best we can get. 

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) explained in a Twitter thread, “I voted against this budget in the Assembly because Democrats need to be on record that what the Republicans are doing to our state is horrific and unconscionable. BUT… I’m still glad the Governor ultimately signed the budget.”

She cited education funding, and specifically protecting federal COVID relief funds that would have been jeopardized if Evers vetoed the whole budget, “harm reduction,” a few decent programs and Evers’ partial vetoes which made the budget somewhat better.

That’s not Evers’ campaign message, but it’s the truth. An honest campaign slogan would be “Evers: Things could be worse.” 

Truth doesn’t always make good politics.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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