Gov. Tony Evers began his first budget address, which he called “Wisconsin for US,” by playing a short video of his statewide listening tour. The tour was open to the public and designed to involve constituents in the budget process.
Wisconsin residents from all backgrounds addressed issues of importance to them on the tour, including rural economics, criminal justice reform, public transit, health care and education, which Evers said he considered when putting together his proposed budget.
However, after mentioning an initiative to fund clean water programs, Evers’ first budget proposal was to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and offering automatic voter registration.
“At the end of the day, our budget is about putting people first," Evers said. "It’s about creating a Wisconsin that works for everyone – a Wisconsin for us. This isn’t the Tony Evers budget, the Democratic budget, the Speaker’s budget, or the Republican budget – this is the people’s budget. And it’s one that we crafted together.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, pushed back against many of Evers proposals.
"Many of the budget proposals Governor Evers has pushed thus far are unserious, marking major departures from how the Senate has operated in previous years,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Republicans, who control both chambers of the legislature, said they would oppose many of Evers new initiatives.
Throughout the governor's 45-minute speech, Democrats stood and cheered while Republicans remained seated and refrained from clapping.
Beginning with areas “where we can all agree,” Evers addressed criminal justice reform, bipartisan support to remedy homelessness in Wisconsin, and funding to ensure that all Wisconsin homes have broadband Internet access by 2025.
“I’ve said all along I’m willing to walk across the aisle,” Evers said. “We just have to choose people over politics. Most importantly, we have an opportunity to listen to what people need in Wisconsin. That starts with health care.”
Evers’ prioritized expanding Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, which he said the majority of Wisconsinites polled said they want. He did not state how much the expansion would cost or how it would be funded.
He then addressed education, saying, “The people of Wisconsin have asked us to fully fund our public schools. What’s best for our kids is best for our state.”
This begins, Evers said, by returning two-thirds of school funding to the state, but at the expense of school choice.
“Governor Evers' budget would freeze the growth of the highest performing schools in Milwaukee and some of the best in the state,” Libby Sobic, director and legal counsel of Education Policy at Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), told Watchdog.org. “School choice is working for thousands of families across Wisconsin. Instead, Gov. Evers is preventing Wisconsin families from choosing the best educational opportunity for their children.”
Sobic is referring to the details of his plan that were left out of Evers’ Thursday remarks. He proposes freezing enrollment in Wisconsin’s parental choice programs, curtailing the expansion of independent public charter schools and other guidelines that WILL argues will hurt minority children in the inner cities the most.
Evers’ plan includes $1.4 billion in additional funding to K-12 public schools, including $600 million toward special education. It also gives $18 million to technical colleges and more than $150 million to the University of Wisconsin system. The increased funds would freeze tuition costs, Evers says. For how long was not specified.
Evers next mentioned his creation of a nonpartisan commission to draw election maps. The current legislative boundaries drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature are being challenged in federal court.
"The people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around," Evers said. "By creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Wisconsin, we’re making sure that when we’re redrawing district maps in 2021, we’re putting people before politics."
Evers closed his remarks by saying that roads cost taxpayers $16 billion in repair and other costs every year. His budget proposes the largest biennial investment in transportation projects in state history. The funding partially comes from $600 million in new revenue from increased title fees and an 8-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike.
Evers did not mention his campaign pledge to cut middle class taxes.
Majority Republican lawmakers will propose their own budget. If Evers and the legislature can't agree on a spending plan, a longer stalemate is anticipated.
Charles Nichols of the Republican Party of Wisconsin said in a statement that Evers was trying to cater to liberal special interests.
"From his hyper-partisan rhetoric to vetoing tax cuts on middle class families, Evers has demonstrated that he will prioritize the interests of his far-left base over all others, no matter the cost,” Nichols said.