Gov. Tony Evers' State of the State address pushes tax rebates, tuition relief

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MADISON – Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday during his State of the State address that he was extending the University of Wisconsin's long-running tuition freeze for another year.

As he gears up for reelection, the first-term governor also said he would call a special session to pressure Republicans who control the Legislature to adopt his plan to use a projected surplus to give every Wisconsinite $150. Republicans want to wait until after the November election to adopt permanent tax breaks.

A special session will force legislative leaders to act, but they can quickly reject his plan with a few bangs of a gavel, as they have done several times during his first three years in office.

While Republicans can easily block those plans, they have been unable to prevent him from deciding how to allocate billions of dollars in aid Congress made available to the state to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Evers made clear he would continue to use those funds as he sees fit — including to keep in place for another year the tuition freeze that has been in place at UW System schools since 2013.

Evers and lawmakers last year agreed to give the Board of Regents the power to raise tuition, but the board kept the freeze in place for another year. Evers on Tuesday said he was providing the system with $25 million in COVID funds so it could keep the freeze in place for the academic year that begins in the fall.

Evers invited members of the Wisconsin National Guard to be guests of the address in the Assembly chamber, praising their work to help the state navigate the pandemic that is entering its third year.

Gov. Tony Evers arrives to deliver his State of the State address Tuesday at the Capitol in Madison.
Gov. Tony Evers arrives to deliver his State of the State address Tuesday at the Capitol in Madison.

"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.

Evers said he would devote $5 million in COVID funds to expand mental health services for Guard members. The announcement comes after a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation revealed little was done to respond to a spate of suicides in one unit of the Guard.

More: Four Wisconsin National Guardsmen went to Afghanistan together. All returned home safely. Within months, all took their own lives.

"Our effort to invest more than $3 million into expanding the Guard’s wellness program was gutted from my biennial budget. It would have increased access to important mental health and wellness support to more than 9,000 Guard members," he said, referring to Republicans' budget action. "Well, tonight, I’m announcing I’m going to do it anyway."

He said he would propose ongoing funding for the program in the next state budget if reelected.

Republicans reacted to his speech stonily, declining to applaud when he mentioned the budget surplus, the state's low unemployment rate and tax cuts that Republicans authored last year.

"Tonight, what we heard, was another example of revisionist history," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters after the speech. "Gov. Evers talked about all of the money that he is allocating, most of which is borrowed from our grandkids through federal government spending."

Vos blasted Evers for touting tax cuts that Republicans authored.

"That's what we did in our last budget, which he took most of the evening taking credit for the only act that he participated in, which was the final signature, which took about two minutes."

Governor announces $30 million for local governments

Evers said he would send $30 million in additional funding to local governments to pay for emergency medical services, citing a decadelong trend of declining state aid and rising costs. Most of the funding will go to rural areas, Evers said, "for whatever help they need the most."

"Between these rising costs and lack of available staffing, some have even gone without ambulance services, left with no other option but to hope and rely upon neighboring providers," he said.

Evers announced a new $15 million program to provide schools with mental health services to help them address the effects of the pandemic.

"Every public school district can opt in to receive these funds — no matter how big or small," he said.

Vos dismissed the plan as a "political statement."

"Even the idea that he had for money for mental health in schools, which, of course, is something that we need, amounts to about $20 a child," he said. "Over the course of the past three years, Gov. Evers has never truly led on a single topic."

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The speech gave Evers an opportunity to tout the state's record low unemployment rate of 2.8% and champion a projected surplus. The state is expected to take in $2.9 billion more than previously estimated through the middle of 2023.

Evers wants to put $750 million of that amount toward education and use another $816 million for the $150-per-person tax rebates. Republicans have declared those ideas dead on arrival, but will now have to consider them in at least a proforma session because of his call for a special session.

They can dispense with such sessions in a matter of seconds. Evers urged them to take action, saying the state shouldn’t let its surplus swell to $3.8 billion when people are coping with rising inflation.

"Indifference in this building is getting expensive, folks," he said.

"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. That’s baloney."

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna said he didn’t like Evers’ plan because it provided a one-time break.

“It seems like what the governor is doing is trying to condition people to get checks from government,” he said. “And what we're looking at doing is making sure people get to keep their own money, not give it to the government and the government sending pennies back.”

Evers and Republican leaders rarely talk but have landed on the same page on some past tax cuts. Last year, Evers approved a Republican-drafted plan that reduced taxes by more than $2 billion.

Evers said that deal helped him cut income taxes for the middle class by even more than he promised when he ran in 2018. Republicans have dismissed that characterization, saying he didn't deserve credit for a tax cut they designed.

Three Republicans are vying to challenge Evers — former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, management consultant Kevin Nicholson and state Rep. Tim Ramthun of Campbellsport. An Aug. 9 primary will determine which of them faces Evers in November.

The three Republicans have put a focus on the 2020 election. Ramthun has sought to revoke the state's 10 electoral votes for Joe Biden, which nonpartisan attorneys for the Legislature have said is impossible. Kleefisch and Nicholson have said they want to dissolve the state's bipartisan Elections Commission and hand its duties over to partisan elected officials.

Evers has stood by the commission, which consists of three Republicans and three Democrats. Evers planned to hint at his differences with Republicans at the end of his speech by noting he was speaking on the night of the spring primary.

"As I conclude my fourth State of the State address, I want to acknowledge that it is a privilege for us to be here together tonight — and on Election Day, no less — to participate in an enduring but profound function of our democracy," he said. "One that’s much like the peaceful and respectful transfer of power or like the fundamental right to cast a ballot."

There is irony in where the candidates stand. Republicans voted to create the commission in 2015, saying at the time that it would ensure fairness. Democrats decried the move, arguing an evenly split panel would create nonstop gridlock.

Republicans contended Evers isn't doing enough to address violent crime or fight inflation.

"We hope that Governor Evers enjoys giving his State of the State address tonight, because it's going to be his final one," said a statement from Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association.

Evers delivered his address after three years of nonstop battles with the Republicans who sat before him. He sought to appeal to Wisconsinites who may be tired of the intense partisan fighting.

“As I deliver my fourth State of the State address to you tonight, I recognize there are those who would’ve said it was unlikely I’d ever become governor,” Evers said. “I was a scrawny kid with big glasses who grew up in Plymouth — that’s the Cheese Capital of the World, by the way. I raised hell and played bass guitar in a rock band in high school.”

“I didn’t spend years pining to run for this office. And I’d much rather spend time listening to others than talking about myself — which, I’ve found out, isn’t something I have in common with most politicians,” Evers said. “I guess, in many ways, maybe it was unlikely. But you might not know just how close I was to ending up on a much different path.”

Evers detailed his initial plans to attend medical school in Austria and how his first child with wife Kathy prompted the couple to abandon the idea and return to Wisconsin to work for Kohler Corp.

Just before he started that job, Evers received a letter telling him he had been accepted at UW-Madison for its master's program for education. Evers went on to become a teacher, district superintendent and, years later, state schools superintendent.

"That letter changed my entire trajectory," Evers was to say. "Because of that letter, I went on to become a science teacher."

Later, Evers became a district superintendent and, eventually, the state schools superintendent.

Evers alluded to his decisions to navigate the pandemic that have since drawn heavy criticism from Republicans, saying he told the story of the letter "because this work has always been a responsibility and an obligation I’ve met without regret or reservation — to do what's needed to be done, to do what I must with what I was given, and to always try to do what is right."

"Not because it was perfect. It seldom is. Not because it was always easy. But because, however different things could have ended up for me, I have never doubted that I’m right where I needed to be because I welcome the duty of doing the right thing when it matters most."

Contact Patrick Marley at Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Tony Evers' State of the State address pushes tax rebate plan