This is what bipartisanship looks like?

Wisconsin Republicans haven’t quite got the hang of constructive engagement

June 9, 2023 5:30 am
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announces a shared revenue deal on June 8, 2023 | Photo by Erik Gunn

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announces a shared revenue deal on June 8, 2023 | Photo by Erik Gunn

Wisconsin legislative leaders’ triumphant announcement of a “transformational” agreement on shared revenue for local communities — the major sticking point in ongoing budget negotiations — took place in the ornate Assembly chamber on Thursday, with Republican lawmakers from both the Assembly and the Senate gathered behind their leaders for the big reveal.

There were plenty of accolades for the “bipartisan” deal. But there were no Democrats present. Just before the press conference started, Gov. Tony Evers put out a press release acknowledging that he and the Republican legislative leaders had reached an agreement after talks that went on most of Wednesday night. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu signaled those talks were over Thursday morning when he issued a brusque public statement threatening to walk out on the whole deal unless Evers accepted the Republicans’ “last, best offer.”

Apparently, Evers did.

In answer to questions from reporters, LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos described negotiating the agreement mostly within their own Republican caucus, where they expect to have enough votes to pass the deal. Democrats might vote for it, they said. They certainly hoped so. And they expect Evers to sign it. Coming on the heels of all their high-minded talk about the give and take of negotiation in which no one gets exactly what they want, the Republicans’ presentation of the deal as essentially an inside job among Republicans struck a discordant note.

There were some Democrats who played a significant part in the negotiations, however, according to Vos. They were Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. In other words, the “bipartisan” deal was hashed out between Republican legislative leaders and local officials who had a gun pointed at their heads, facing imminent bankruptcy unless they agreed to Republicans’ conditions.

Some of those conditions, which focused heavily on restricting local control in Milwaukee, were helpfully spelled out on a poster announcing the agreement in the Assembly chamber: 

  • Restricts local advisory referenda 
  • Prohibits new revenue from going to the Milwaukee streetcar
  • Prohibits race based hiring (DEI) in all Wisconsin municipalities
  • Requires law enforcement officers in Milwaukee public schools
  • Reins in powers of public health officials to close businesses
  • Prohibits local government from defunding the police

It gave some Republicans “heartburn,” Vos said, to drop their demand that Milwaukee go to referendum in order to raise much-needed revenue through a sales tax — a referendum local officials said would likely fail. But it was worth it, he added, to get all the other “conservative wins” in the deal. 

Chief among those, Vos said, is a “transformational school choice expansion.”

Given the power of the school choice lobby in Wisconsin, and Republicans’ dedication to siphoning more and more money from limited public education budgets into private schools, the doomed referendum requirement for Milwaukee was a bargaining chip they were probably eager to give away in exchange for boosting school vouchers. 

Right after the shared revenue deal announcement, the right-wing Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty put out a press release on the deal crowing “Incredible News! A Massive Win for Wisconsin Families!” focused entirely on the new money for vouchers.

Per-pupil spending on school vouchers will go up by more than $1,000 for each K-8 student attending a publicly funded private school and by nearly $3,000 per pupil for voucher students attending private high schools. Independent charter schools will get a tuition bump from $9,264 per student to $11,000. 

In his press release, Evers celebrated the part of the agreement that boosts public K-12 school funding by $1 billion through a combination of state aid and lifting caps on local property taxes, as well as a $97 million increase in the state’s share of special ed costs, $30 million for school mental health services, and $50 million to improve literacy.

The plan to improve literacy is a bit murky. Evers says the details haven’t been fully worked out. A few hours before the shared revenue deal was announced, there was another Republicans-only press conference about a “bipartisan” literacy bill. Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) described reaching an agreement on the plan with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Then, minutes after the press conference was over, state schools superintendent Jill Underly put out a statement saying DPI opposes the plan.

This is what “bipartisanship” looks like in Wisconsin these days. Republicans hash out a compromise with other Republicans, then pat themselves on the back for coming up with a deal and insist Democrats are going to support it. 

Wisconsin Examiner photo

It reminds me of a story about a bride who got engaged to a man who lived in another state. Her fiance announced he’d taken his best friend to choose items for the wedding registry. The two men picked out sheets and towels in shades of mustard yellow and olive green. When the bride objected, her fiance explained, defensively, that he and his buddy had picked out a bedspread with flowers on it as a compromise to her feminine taste. She didn’t like the flowers, either.

Building a relationship and getting along takes time and effort, and Wisconsin Republicans are just getting started.

They know they need to appear more bipartisan and constructive. They’ve grudgingly accepted they have to work with Evers, after failing to unseat him in his decisive reelection bid, and then taking a drubbing in the state Supreme Court race. They know their hardline stances, especially on abortion, are out of step and it’s costing them with voters.  

But they haven’t quite figured out the whole bipartisan thing. Instead of calling a press conference to insult the people you’ve supposedly struck a deal with, while congratulating yourself on your graciousness, actual bipartisanship means trying to see other people’s point of view and working with them.

There was some of that in the Capitol this week, too. 

Baylor Spears reported on a bipartisan bill to allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal birth control. Rep. Joel Kitchens (he of the unfinished “bipartisan” literacy deal) was  the lead Assembly author. He reintroduced the bill, he said, “to give women more choices in reproductive health care, decrease the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions in our state, save taxpayer dollars and reduce generational poverty.”

That’s a breath of fresh air in a state that recently took women back to the 19th century with a draconian 1849 abortion ban.

Other signs of thawing in the Capitol include a hearing this week on a series of bipartisan proposals to improve the state’s election system that did not feature any election denial or the airing of conspiracy theories, as Henry Redman reports.

“Our goal is to make sure we get started on things we can agree on, because nothing is going to change unless both sides agree and it can be signed by the governor. That’s the political reality we’re in,” said the new chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa), who replaced election conspiracy theorist Janel Brandtjen (R-Menominee Falls).

That’s quite a turnaround.

In the shared revenue showdown, perhaps Vos was crafty enough to hold out for private school funding by pretending he really cared about forcing Milwaukee to go to referendum to raise its own sales tax. And perhaps Evers, like President Joe Biden during the recent debt limit negotiations with congressional Republicans, decided to let the Republicans declare victory and bask in the limelight, quietly figuring he got the better deal.

After all, the state can afford to put a lot more money into both public and private schools out of the massive $7 billion state surplus. And, notably, the deal does not expand eligibility for vouchers or the size of the school choice program, just the amount of money per student schools can receive. The structural problem we face, with a growing network of publicly funded private schools draining money from the public school system, remains unchanged.

The attack on local control in Milwaukee, on the other hand, is going to be hard for a lot of people to swallow. As the price of averting a looming fiscal crisis, eliminating civilian oversight of law enforcement by the Fire and Police Commission, and ramming school resource officers down the throats of communities that had soundly rejected them, are a serious encroachments on the safety and autonomy of a lot of young people of color. 

The condescending tone of Republican legislators who proclaimed their insistence that Milwaukee roll back local, democratic decisions an “opportunity” to end “mismanagement” adds insult to injury. 

Old habits die hard. 


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. 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. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.