Sunday, March 10, 2019

EVERS AND GOP FIGHTING FOR WISCONSIN’S POLITICAL SOUL

By Dominique Paul Noth

Evers sells his budget on listening tours of the state.
There’s a remarkable contrast between the voices on the street and the coverage in Wisconsin media, an automatic cynicism in the press that may have some historical justification but actually steps hard on budding optimism among the voting public.

The new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, has put together a two-year budget proposal that virtually every newspaper article declares DOA (dead on arrival) because of opposition in the Republican controlled legislature.  There is even talk that the GOP will try to supplant his budget by amending the old one.

That’s not the word you hear on the street. What may have been true for eight years under GOP’s departed governor Scott Walker is undergoing the crashing sounds of change.  Many in both parties now realize that Evers is not the extreme partisan the GOP tried to paint (in fact, several Democrats don’t find him extreme enough). Several of his proposals have considerable majority clout behind them, given past actions from all sides of the electorate. 

There is particular joy not just from diehard progressives in how aggressively Evers is stepping forward on issues of climate change, clean water and environmental sanity after years of cutbacks.

Moreover, he has listened to Wisconsin about their children. Even in conservative districts there has been unprecedented positive momentum on funding public schools. Many communities on their own used referendums to break Walker’s intrusions on local control.   

When you go out to hear the voice of the citizenry at shops, restaurants and malls, or listen in to social media among even the nonpartisan, you hear something different than the press is reporting.  What a breath of fresh air, people are saying, to see budget proposals that lean forward on issues like transportation and health care. How nice to read about efforts to expand Medicaid and attack higher health insurance premiums without the pretense of the Walker years (when the state was suing to stop ACA coverage of pre-existing conditions while still pretending it wasn’t).

Right now, the nice words run even deeper in Milwaukee where the state’s poorest and most troubled ZIP code, 53206, may have been the subject of news stories and documentaries but was pretty much ignored at the state level.  Evers and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes have turned that around in a budget focus that even includes an urban gardening center for a troubled inner city community.

Some Democrats feel Evers is not leaning forward enough for some progressives concerns like the long lingering dislike by unions for Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining for public service unions even as it imposed limits on local taxes for roads and education.  People are reminding Evers daily that he promised to address the union part of Act 10 as well as the school part during the campaign.  Evers is clearly first emphasizing the areas where the public has already expressed dissatisfaction in referendums.  The union issue is more complex after years of GOP harping on the money for liberal causes that unions have raised.

But Evers is directly attacking so-called “right to work” – an attack on unions – in seeking a straight repeal of that Walker era law and a return to prevailing wage.

When Evers talks in his budget about committing $1 billion more for real tax relief and full two-thirds funding of local schools, the Republicans may scream but many voters see that simply as the cost of restoration and progress. He has offered ways to pay for the increases. Among them, he has asked for a cutoff in voucher school enrollment and a freeze in charter schools.  Moreover, he has made bipartisan proposals on transportation funding, including an emphasis on the potholed local roads people use more than the expensive highway projects they never asked for.

His environmental effort includes restoring scientific positions that Walker cut.

He has also signed executive orders requiring the Department of Transportation to explore expanding days and hours to allow residents to obtain photo identification cards for voting purposes and,  separately, to explore how driver licenses can be made available for the undocumented.

Still, some in the Democratic camp argue that Evers and his staff are being too cautious, an echo of an emerging national debate about how fast or how carefully to attack some lingering GOP attitudes about helping the citizenry.  It’s even tougher in Wisconsin thanks to gerrymander realities around the state legislature.

Those Republican leaders are insisting that not one sentence of Evers budget will be passed, but political insiders in both parties believe they are whistling past the graveyard.  State Speaker of the House Robin Vos believes he still rules Wisconsin because he has a 30 plus vote margin in the Assembly.  But even fellow Republicans worry that he is delusional about the impending political realities – those Republican drawn district maps at the center of court action.

Some believe Robin Vos is relying on his
Assembly power base to prepare a run
for governor.
Vos famously called Evers budget the “opening move in a chess match,” rather than admitting it reflected the wishes of the public that elected him.  Vos is dealing with spots of rebellion within his own caucus, some from politicians even more right-wing than he is but some from moderate conservatives worried he is relying on a gerrymandering situation that may change and leave them voted out of office in 2020.

In the state Senate, there is a mere three vote GOP margin, which forces a lot more compromise.  Vos and Assembly Republicans no longer have a governor’s coattails to hide behind. 

While the GOP has made constant efforts to paint Evers as some sort of extremist progressive, those arguments have died on the vine as he and the new lieutenant governor, Barnes, continue their listening tour around the state, another piece by piece way to introduce their two-year budget and intentions to the public.

On a recent visit to Green Bay, Evers put it simply.  “Any time something like this happens -- a change in administration or a new budget -- there's going to be a lot of political posturing and huffing and puffing, but at the end of the day we have to find common ground, and I look forward to doing that." He also flat warned the GOP that if the party leaders didn’t work with him “I will veto the entire budget if it’s extraordinarily bad" for the state.

Slowly, the more intelligent in the media are coming around to recognizing that in his steady way Evers has a lot of room and time for successes. He is not biting off more than the public can chew and he is making the opponents digest regular chunks of change.

Moreover, the state constitution gives the governor the biggest partial veto pen in the nation.  The governor has the ability to strike individual words and numbers from any spending bill and replace them with new figures. That power is unique because it gives the governor the ability to change policy, said Miriam Seifter, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, in interviews with the media.

Actually, because he already had a legislature in his pocket, Walker did not wield this power as mightily as Evers can.  The three-times elected state superintendent of schools now has a gubernatorial staff eager to display their prowess with grammar.

Republicans are warning themselves not to give Evers word salads in the laws they write and in spending bills they hope to pass despite him.  First, there is still the straight veto, which is powerful.  Then there is the ability to rewrite their bills, as one Assembly Democrat told me off the record in colorful language. 

“They haven’t had to put their brains to any real test for eight years,” he said. “They aren’t clever enough by half to recognize what Evers can do.”

Another Democratic legislator sees it differently.  “Vos and his people are at the height of their political powers and machine organization, so they’re still dangerous,” he said. “They may soon start downhill but not quite yet.  Evers’ people are notoriously cautious and still feeling their way but can only get stronger.” 

These legislators measure the battle for Wisconsin’s soul in months and years, not days and weeks.  

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


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