Evers sets a veto record as toxic partisanship ramps up

April 11, 2022 6:00 am
Evers speaking in Assembly chambers with Vos behind him

Gov. Tony Evers delivers his 2019 State of the State address to a joint session of the State Legislature. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August look on | Tony Evers via Flickr

Gov. Tony Evers took action on 78 bills Friday, signing 35 bills passed by the Legislature this session and vetoing 43 bills — bringing the total number of bills he has vetoed in the latest session to 98, a new record for Wisconsin governors.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos immediately put out a press release deriding Evers’ record-setting vetoes and declaring, ​​”While Legislative Republicans continue to pass needed reforms to address election security, rising crime, and workforce shortages, the Governor continues to ignore the important issues facing Wisconsinites.”

But the Legislature’s list of important issues facing Wisconsinites — contained in the flurry of bills they sent to Evers’ desk before ending the legislative session early — consisted of little more than fuel to inflame the GOP base and divide the state. There was a package of elections bills that grew out of ex-President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about widespread election fraud;  power-grab efforts to wrest control over the spending of federal pandemic relief funds from the governor;   tough-on-crime bills that infringe on the discretion of the courts; a bill that allows people to carry concealed weapons onto school grounds and an obsessive focus on preventing schools from teaching about the harms of racism. A handful of other educational innovations aiming to transfer money out of the public schools are part of an ongoing effort by the Legislature, as Evers put it in a veto message, to “politicize our schools and our education system while refusing to make meaningful, necessary investments in our kids.”

Republicans’ fake outrage over Evers’ vetoes is flimsy cover for these highly partisan bills they knew perfectly well would not become law. Those bills were never a serious effort to make policy. They were drafts of campaign talking points.

The biggest bright spot in the largely fruitless legislative session was the bipartisan measure Evers signed that will finally close the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth correctional facilities, repurposing them as adult lockups, while providing $42 million for a new youth facility in Milwaukee. 

“For years, legislators have been talking about closing Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake as a juvenile facility while simultaneously delaying and obstructing plans to do so,” Evers said when he signed the bill. “I am glad to be finally signing this bill today that will ensure we can move our kids out of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake safely and responsibly by providing the funding needed to move forward on a Type 1 facility in Milwaukee County. By doing so, these kids will be closer to home, their families, and their support networks, so we can set them up for better success both while they are in our care and when they re-enter our communities.”

It almost didn’t happen. On the very last day of the Assembly floor session, Democrats were incensed that Vos, in announcing his plan to wrap up the session early, tossed aside dozens of bills including the popular proposal to close the troubled Lincoln Hills. The measure had made it out of committee with a unanimous vote and passed the Senate 33-0. Yet Vos said he doubted it would make it to the floor

Then, in a purely political gesture, in the evening of the last day of the session, Vos made a dramatic U-turn, declaring in a press conference that his favored Republican gubernatorial candidate, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, had written him a letter calling for action on Lincoln Hills. Vos blamed Evers, who had long supported closing the youth prison and included a provision to close the facility in his budget proposal, for being “inept” and not doing enough to bring about the closure. Kleefisch, he said, was showing real leadership on the issue. So he stopped sitting on the bill and it quickly passed on a bipartisan vote and headed to Evers’ desk. Vos’ last-minute effort to give Kleefisch credit was absurd. Kleefisch had showed no interest in the issue as lieutenant governor and offered no proposal to address the problematic facility during her current campaign. Vos was the only obstacle to moving forward, and after pretending it was Kleefisch who convinced him, he finally got out of the way. 

It’s no secret that Vos, who has faced rebellion in his caucus, is trying to promote Kleefisch’s candidacy, even as the list of other GOP contenders continues to grow, including, most recently, a possible run by former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has become a sainted symbol of bipartisan comity and let’s-have-a-beer fellowship so sorely missed in Wisconsin’s soured political atmosphere. Even though Tommy flew down to kiss Donald Trump’s ring in Mar-a-Lago as he ponders yet another run, he represents a happier pre-Trump era for a lot of Wisconsinites.

How things have changed since Tommy’s long reign! 

Last week’s nonpartisan elections showcased the increasingly aggressive partisan GOP strategy, which this year transformed wonky nonpartisan school board races into nasty fights that featured death threats, racist literature and big dollars coming from outside groups. 

Kleefisch took the unusual step of endorsing 48 school board candidates, 34 of whom won. The slates of conservative candidates who received her support – along with a boost from the Repoublican party and conservative donors — focused not on school funding (a genuine crisis in Wisconsin) but on culture war issues including parental rights to determine their children’s gender pronouns and attacking books with LGBTQ themes, mask-wearing and anti-racist curriculum.   

Imagine if, instead of the nonstop negativity in politics coming from the current crop of Republicans, the party was led by Thompson, a tireless booster of Wisconsin.

In a valedictory speech as he left his job as interim president of UW System, Tommy urged people to stop criticizing the UW System and “start bragging about it.”

“So many people around this country — smart people — are saying that you don’t  need a university education, and that really bothers me,” he added. “Who are going to be the engineers? Who are going to be nurses? Who are going to be individual business leaders? The entrepreneurs?”

And who is going to pick up the pieces after the nastiness of the 2022 campaigns, bring us back together, and actually govern our state?


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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 the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She 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 lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.