Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers reflects on the highlights and challenges of 2023 and the challenges in the coming year in politics | Photo by Baylor Spears for the Examiner
The last time the Examiner checked in with Gov. Tony Evers for a year-end interview, one year into his first term, he compared working with hostile Republican legislative leaders, who rushed to take away some of his executive powers even before he took office, to rolling a rock up a hill like Sisyphus.
This year, Evers is well into his second term with a convincing reelection win under his belt. A new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is poised to undo GOP gerrymandering that has locked in disproportionate Republican control of the Legislature. Evers describes the labor of presiding over a divided government — and his relationship with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu — as somewhat better.
The three of them met “slightly more” in the last year than they did in previous years, Evers says. “I would say the three of us — LeMahieu, Vos and Evers — hanging out at the Cardinal Bar, that doesn’t happen,” he adds during a Thursday phone interview. But in the last budget cycle, “we made some significant progress.”
“We’ve been able to bring shared revenue to a level that hasn’t been seen, ever, and that’s helpful to local folks,” he says.
In addition to increasing the state’s shared revenue payments to local communities, Evers counts among the highlights of 2023 a historic investment in affordable housing, the bipartisan Milwaukee Brewers stadium deal, improving 900 miles of road and 200 bridges over the last year, $125 million allocated to address PFAS contamination in local water supplies and $1 billion for education in the state budget.
Public education and the growth of voucher schools
Public school advocates, who have seen Evers, a former state schools superintendent, as their champion, were bitterly disappointed that, in exchange for releasing shared revenue funds, Republican legislative leaders extracted a historic increase in publicly funded tuition for private schools. Under the terms of the deal, per-pupil payments for K-8 students at private voucher schools will increase from $8,300 to $10,271 by the 2024-25 school year and from $9,045 to $12,765 for high school students.
The Wisconsin Public Education Network called the increase “reckless,” especially since voucher school enrollment caps are set to come off altogether in two years. “Public school students and local property taxpayers will pay the price, while private schools that can legally discriminate and pick and choose their students get a blank check from the state,” WPEN said in a statement.
“I did give them a bump,” Evers concedes. “It was the only way I was going to get Milwaukee and Milwaukee County the resources that they need.”
“It was part of what I had to do,” Evers adds, “and the speaker [Robin Vos] gave up some significant things on his part.”
Evers says it won’t be easy to address the larger issue of Wisconsin’s ever-expanding publicly funded private school system and the growing burden it places on limited public education funds. Wisconsin’s private school choice programs have grown from 350 students who participated in the first-in-the-nation school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 to 53,000 students who receive publicly subsidized private school tuition today. Most participating families, WPEN points out, have never had their kids enrolled in public school.
“But you know, there are thousands of children whose parents have made that choice,” says Evers. “And I think it’s going to be very difficult to just say, ‘Well, we’re sick of it.’”
Evers says he can offer no solution “off the top of my head” to the problem of paying for two school systems, one public and one private, out of a single limited pot of education funds.
“Maybe there are ways we can deal with it monetarily that are not abrasive to public schools,” he says.
“I’m a public school supporter. I provided the largest increase they’ve ever received. I know it’s not as much as I would have liked. But it certainly was a step in the right direction,” he adds.
‘Standing tough’ on DEI
In both the shared revenue negotiation and in the recent controversial vote by the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to accept cuts to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, Republican legislative leaders appeared to win concessions by holding needed funding hostage.
What’s the best way to deal with that?
“Just stand tough,” says Evers, who points out that one of his first actions as governor was to issue an executive order making all state agencies create diversity, equity and inclusion plans. “They’re not going to scare us out of using DEI,” he says, “and they’re not going to be successful in getting rid of it in state government. Obviously, they’re not going to be able to get rid of it in the private sector. And frankly, I don’t think they’re going to get rid of it in the UW System, either.”
What angered Evers, he says, was that “the Board of Regents was negotiating two things that were already solved.” Raises for UW faculty and staff were already in the budget Evers signed. “Bargaining on that was ridiculous,” he says. Likewise, Evers had already vetoed the Republican proposal to eliminate DEI, cutting it from the budget the Legislature submitted to him. ”They couldn’t override my veto. And so negotiating around that was a fool’s errand,” he says.
“At the end of the day, DEI will continue to succeed in Wisconsin,” Evers declares. Public and private institutions throughout the state have it. “Robin Vos cannot change that. He can talk about it all he wants, but he can’t change it,” Evers says.
New voting maps a ‘game changer’
Culture war issues including DEI will likely feature prominently in Republicans’ 2024 election campaigns. But Evers sees the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s plan to choose a new voting map for the state as potentially transformative, helping shift Wisconsin away from bitterly divisive partisan politics.
“One of the things that holds us back is the makeup of the Legislature,” he says. “There’s no legislator on the Republican side that could say, ‘Yeah, this is a red state.’ We are a purple state at worst. And we need to have the maps reflect that.”
Evers will submit an “appropriate” proposed map as one of the parties to the lawsuit that triggered the Court’s call for new maps.
“This is a game changer,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to it.”
Kitchen table issues
By creating more competitive districts, Evers holds out hope that new maps could open up space for less toxic partisanship and more constructive politics in Wisconsin.
Of former President Donald Trump’s influence in Wisconsin and across the nation, he says, “It’s scary, that’s for sure.” But he estimates the number of hard-core Trump voters in the state at about 30% of the electorate.
Most voters, he says, including independents and moderates, “understand what Joe Biden has done for our state and it’s around kitchen table issues.”
He sees agricultural policy, good roads, infrastructure improvements and clean water as “the things that will drive this election.”
Hopes for a bipartisan solution to PFAS-polluted drinking water in many Wisconsin communities dimmed at the end of last year, when Republicans insisted on limiting the regulatory powers of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to hold polluters accountable. Environmental groups sounded the alarm.
“We’re very concerned about that [becoming] law also,” Evers says. “We’ve talked directly to the two senators who proposed it [Green Bay Republican Sens. Robert Cowles and Eric Wimberger] and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
At this point, he says, he’s not sure the bill will even make it to his desk.
Meanwhile, Evers has directed the DNR to formally request $125 million from the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance to take immediate action on PFAS contamination. The money has already been approved and is part of the budget Evers signed, but Republican legislators have not released the funds as they pursue legislation to restrict DNR’s ability to distribute them.
Under Wisconsin Statute 13.10, “We’re asking for that money,” says Evers. “So we’re just going to get it to the DNR to do the good work. We’ll see if we’re successful there.”
As for Republican efforts to reduce penalties and clean-up costs for PFAS polluters, “We have to hold the people accountable that created this mess,” Evers says. “We’ve done that before with the paper industry, and there’s no reason why we can’t do it with the people that make PFAS.”
The future for Democrats
Under new maps, Wisconsin Democrats could have a shot at regaining power in the Legislature in the coming years. So how does Evers view his role building a bench and what is his vision for the future of his party?
This is a particularly nagging question after more than a decade of Democratic impotence in the Legislature. Even during the Evers administration, Democratic legislators have sometimes appeared to be out of the loop — caught flat-footed, for example, when they were unsure of the details of the shared revenue deal when it was announced by Evers, Republican legislative leaders and the local officials from Milwaukee who had been holding private talks. Evers says he’s in close contact with the leaders of the Democratic caucus in the Assembly and the Senate, whom he describes as “really good people, really smart people … they’re good leaders.”
“Our interaction with them is on my behalf, mine personally, but also by my staff, on a regular basis,” he says.
As Wisconsin moves to the center of national politics in 2024 in what will likely be a rematch between Biden and Trump. Evers is optimistic.
“When I ran for reelection, some of my biggest crowds were up north, whether it was Minocqua or other areas of the state,” he said. “We just have to build upon that.”
On most policy issues, a majority of voters agree with the Democrats, he says. He points to Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasieiwicz’s resounding victory, flipping the Court from a conservative to a liberal majority, as proof. “Abortion is a huge one, but there are many others that the Republicans fail on,” he says.
“We may not win in Oneida County,” Evers adds, “but we’re going to get much closer than we have in the past … so I think we’re in the right position.”
In 2024, Democrats need to “keep up the energy,” Evers says, “and also we need to do a better job of listening to our young people who are college age or early 20s.”
Meeting voters all over the state is a priority for Evers, who recently completed a 72-county tour.
“From my vantage point, getting out and around the state listening, especially to young people, is exceedingly important,” Evers says. “They get the issue of mental health much better than a lot of other older people do — and other issues, too.”
“I feel good about the future,” he says. “We just have to keep on keeping on and listening to people and putting out policy positions that people can get behind.”
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