Evers delivers State of the State address into a political whirlwind

Gov. Tony Evers began the last State of the State address of his first term and, effectively, the kickoff of his re-election campaign, in his trademark folksy style. He professed his love for his wife, Kathy, his kindergarten classmate and junior prom date, with whom he will celebrate the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary this year. He talked about growing up “a scrawny kid with big glasses” in Plymouth — “that’s the cheese capital of the world, by the way” — where he worked in a cheese factory scraping the mold off cheese. Then he segued into how his youthful dream of becoming a doctor was derailed when he learned, at the beginning of medical school, that Kathy was expecting their first child. An acceptance letter from the UW-Madison graduate school for education changed his life, setting him on his path to become a science teacher, a school principal and then state superintendent of schools.  “And there is no doubt,” he added, “that it is because of that letter that I’m standing here today as your governor.”

The point, Evers said, is that “things don’t always go the way we plan.” He then reeled off a list of things that haven’t gone to plan lately, including the arrival of the pandemic, the ensuing economic crisis, and Republicans blocking his proposals to fund health care for tens of thousands of low- and moderate-income Wisconsinites through the federal Medicaid expansion as well as deep-sixing legislation to address PFAS contamination in state drinking water.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who was seated, poker-faced, directly behind Evers throughout the speech, could have thrown out a few examples of his own, including the insurrectionist rally in the Capitol that took place just hours before Evers spoke. At the rally, organized by members of Vos’ own caucus, speakers denounced Vos for not doing enough about the “stolen” 2020 presidential election. Rep. Timothy Ramthun (R-Campbellsport), the leader of that rally and a Republican candidate for governor, was seated a few feet away from the podium at the State of the State. Ramthun was fresh from leading hundreds of supporters into the building to demand that the Legislature pass a resolution to take back Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes for Joe Biden (a legal impossibility according to experts).

“Not only is it illegal, it’s just plain unconstitutional,” Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) tweeted about Ramthun’s resolution . “As chair of the Rules Committee, there is ZERO chance I will advance this illegal resolution.”

Anger and paranoia are at a peak in Wisconsin, as election conspiracy theorists and pandemic deniers try to turn distrust of teachers, doctors, and elected officials into the new Republican brand. Hearings on everything from parents’ rights to let their kids attend school unmasked to doctors’ freedom to prescribe horse dewormer and other discredited COVID remedies to election fraud have taken place this session with Republican leaders’ blessing. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu poured a little gas on the fire in the Republican response to Evers’ State of the State, blaming Evers and President Joe Biden for the pandemic restrictions, business closures, “Kenosha burning” and the massacre of children at the Waukesha Christmas parade.

Still, Evers declared, the state of the state is stronger than it has been any time in the last three years. Many of the reasons he gave to back up that assertion have to do with federal pandemic relief efforts, which he has been able to direct to meet Wisconsinites’ needs, over Republicans’ bitter objections.

That influx of federal funds allowed Evers to claim credit for fulfilling his campaign promise to “fix the damn roads.” In his speech he noted that 1,770 miles of highway and 1,250 bridges have been improved on his watch. “If you laid out all the highways we’ve fixed end to end, you could just about drive from Platteville to Denver and back,” he declared.

Evers ticked off the large sums of money he has directed to other projects using federal funds, including $1 billion to support more than 100,000 small businesses,  $100 million for farmers and $100 million to bring high-speed internet to 300,000 homes and businesses.

Wisconsin’s historically low unemployment rate of 2.8% and the state’s unprecedented budget surplus were the other big items of good news in his speech. The $3.8 billion projected surplus, Evers noted, “is not even including the more than $1.7 billion sitting in our ‘rainy day’ fund, which is the highest it’s ever been in Wisconsin state history.”

Wisconsin’s remarkably rosy economic outlook prompted Evers to propose an election year tax rebate of $150 for every man, woman and child residing in Wisconsin, which would use up only about $816 million of the $3.8 billion surplus. When Evers first proposed it, Republicans quickly shot the idea down, calling it a “re-election gimmick” (despite their earlier support for election-year tax cuts proposed by then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker. )

In the State of the State, Evers floated the proposal again. And he made political hay out of Republican-authored tax cuts, taking credit for the tax cuts Republicans put into the current budget  (after they slashed most of the spending in Evers’ original budget proposal along with his $1 billion tax increase on corporations and high-earners). Only seven out of 49 Democrats voted for the Republican-led Legislature’s final budget before Evers signed it. Still, in the State of the State, Evers remarked, “Republicans and Democrats also found common ground, and I was glad to deliver on my promise to cut taxes for middle-class families by 15% by signing one of the largest tax cuts in state history.”

In the Republican response, LeMahieu pointedly reclaimed credit for the tax cuts on behalf of Republican legislators, and derided Evers’ “weak leadership,” saying it was Republicans, not Evers, who put the state in a strong financial position, in part by blocking Evers’ more ambitious ideas.

Evers acknowledged those disappointments, and chided Republicans in his speech for failing to invest in schools or spend surplus money to help Wisconsinites. And he announced that he’s calling a special session of the Legislature to take up his surplus plan, including putting another $750 million into schools and expanding child care and job training programs. (Evers and Republican legislative leaders have established a pattern throughout his administration in which Evers calls special sessions to address pressing issues only to have the Legislature gavel in and gavel out again without taking any action.)

“Indifference in this building is getting expensive, folks,” Evers told the assembled legislators. “And let me be frank: the people who will bear the burden of inaction are almost certainly not the people sitting in this chamber tonight.”

“So, don’t sit here in a white, marble building with state coffers that are full and tell Wisconsinites who are working hard every day that we can’t afford to do more,” he added. “That’s baloney.”

For the most part, during the speech, Republicans sat on their hands, stoney-faced, while Democrats surged to their feet to give Evers multiple standing ovations.

A break in the pattern occurred when Evers recognized the Wisconsin National Guard members in attendance, including Maj. Gen. Paul E. Knapp, the Guard’s adjutant general.

Evers praised the soldiers of the National Guard for their work during the pandemic, providing emergency support and giving vaccines. Republicans stood and clapped as he described how Guardsmen helped voters at polling places during the recent pandemic elections.

“These folks have stepped up to serve our state time and time again during one of the direst periods in our state’s history. And their service has not come without cost — emotionally, physically, and mentally,” Evers said, as the legislators clapped.

Then he mentioned the $3 million to expand the Guard’s wellness program that Republicans cut from his budget. “Well, tonight, I’m announcing I’m going to do it anyway,” Evers said. “We’re going to invest $5 million to expand access to the Guard’s comprehensive wellness office and their services to every single member of the Wisconsin National Guard.”

He called on Republican legislators to continue the funding in the next budget. By then they were sitting down again. They stayed there, looking glum, as Evers called for a $25 million investment in the University of Wisconsin System to fund a popular, Walker-era tuition freeze through the end of the biennium.

The only other moment in Evers’ speech that brought Republicans to their feet was the arrival of the University of Wisconsin marching band at the very end. Everyone jumped up and clapped as band members streamed down the aisles, blasting “On Wisconsin” on their horns.

Just before the speech ended, there was a visibly mixed reaction on the Republican side when Evers described the State of the State itself as “an enduring but profound function of our democracy.” He compared it to “the peaceful and respectful transfer of power or … the fundamental right to cast a ballot — functions that, especially today, we must not take for granted.”

Then Evers quoted George Washington’s 1783 letter to governors, in which he extolled qualities that resonate, for obvious reasons, with Wisconsin’s current governor: “The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies ..  and in some instances to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.”

Folksy good humor, it turns out, was a key element of democracy in Washington’s assessment.

As Evers wound up his speech, calling on Wisconsin’s political leaders “to forget our own prejudices, to make concessions where the greater good demands, and to find common ground wherever and as often as we can,” a few Republicans, including Steineke, who recently announced his retirement, could be seen remaining seated, but clapping.

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