Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Evers Sells Vision to Local Leaders

Governor urges business leaders to help two parties find common ground on tough issues.

By - Jan 14th, 2019 03:30 pm
Tony Evers. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Tony Evers. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Governor Tony Evers outlined his vision for the state today before a group of business and non-profit leaders at the University Club.

The governor, speaking at the annual meeting of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, detailed a vision for the state centered around education, criminal justice reform, transportation policy and healthcare funding. He also took a number of questions from the audience, including on Foxconn, voucher schools and Wisconsin’s Latino community.

“This is a pro-business administration that cares about the people of Wisconsin,” said Evers, putting a twist on former Governor Scott Walker‘s “open for business” tagline.

But a pro-business attitude from Evers won’t immediately translate into harmony with the Republican-controlled legislature. “At the end of this going to be an incredibly complex budget,” Evers predicted.

Evers will introduce his proposed budget in the coming weeks, likely with plenty of policy-related measures embedded within, something that is common with Wisconsin’s biennial budgeting process. Republicans in the legislature will then begin reviewing the document, which Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has already indicated could involve throwing the whole thing out and starting over.

But Evers is optimistic that “common ground” can be found on a number of issues. “At the end of the day I think that there is more that unites us than divides us,” he said.

One thing Evers is certain to introduce in his budget is accepting the federal Medicaid funding. “We need that money to expand healthcare in Wisconsin,” said the governor. He told the audience that Walker and the legislature’s failure to accept the funding has cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $1 billion.

The budget is also likely to increase for education funding. “Moms that are Republican want their kids to have public schools just as much as Moms that are Democrats,” said the former school principal. Drawing a few laughs, Evers told the audience: “for the first time ever, [Republican Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos has agreed with me, two-thirds funding is important.” Both Walker and Evers pledged during the campaign to fund two-thirds of all education costs, which would reduce the portion coming from local property taxes.

Evers certainly was tailoring his speech to a Milwaukee audience. “It’s really time for the state of Wisconsin to form a better relationship with the greater Milwaukee area and that’s at the core of I’m doing,” said Evers. “I’m not a Milwaukeean, but I’ve heard (from) a number of Milwaukeeans in my cabinet.” He said he has taken criticism over hiring four Milwaukeeans, but praised the quality of those hired.

“Issues around shared revenue are huge,” said Evers, while Mayor Tom Barrett broke out in applause. Barrett, who has campaigned heavily on the fact that Milwaukee sends more tax money to the state than it gets back, applauded so quickly that he was the only one to do so, drawing laughter from the room.

Evers, fresh from a visit to Lincoln Hills youth prison, said criminal justice reform would be a key component of his administration. He spoke broadly on the issue, including a pledge to take the lead on fighting racism in Wisconsin. Evers, singling out Texas in particular, said red states have figured out criminal justice reform, opting not to build new prisons, but to focus on rehabilitation. He touted a program in Texas that yields $9 in savings for every $1 in spending and reduces recidivism. The governor said he isn’t talking about violent criminals, but stressed that many people are sent to prison at a great cost for non-violent offenses.

In response to a question from developer Melissa Goins on the future statistical prospects for her African-American sons, Evers said: “racism is a significant factor in the state and the governor needs to take the lead on it.” He said the efforts of his administration would be broadly based and interconnected, but that one thing his administration would propose in its budget is “five star” early childhood programming for the 53206 zip code. This area, located on Milwaukee’s near north side, has the highest incarceration rate of any Wisconsin zip code. His comments on criminal justice reform drew a big round of applause from the audience.

Evers also pledged to work to maximize the state’s return on the Foxconn deal, primarily through the growth of the supply chain industries. He expressed misgivings about the size and length of the $4.1 billion agreement, but said it is important to generate a return for all Wisconsinites. He stressed the importance of transparency on the deal.

When asked about improving the quality of life for Wisconsin’s Latino community, Evers pivoted towards addressing problems with illegal immigration. “I would wager most of the cows milked in this state are milked by people of Latino heritage,” said Evers. He pledged that he would introduce measures to allow undocumented workers to obtain a driver’s permit and pay in-state tuition at state universities.

Sheldon Lubar, a longtime Republican donor who was an outspoken critic of the Republicans’ lame-duck session to limit Evers power, asked if the governor was considering a gas tax. “Clearly gas tax is an option on the table, but here’s what’s not on the table: borrowing,” said Evers. He said Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson would lead a group to identify funding options for the state’s transportation system, including mass transit. “I know for some people the regional transit approach is toxic, it’s not in my world.” Walker shelved a report on transportation funding options during his time in office, while maintaining a gas tax freeze implemented by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and the Republican-led legislature in 2005.

In response to a question from real estate broker James T. Barry III, Evers supported the idea of expanding the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee. “I believe expansion is important, having attended many events there,” said Evers. “I’m open to ideas around that.”

As part of his education plan, Evers said he wouldn’t seek to eliminate the state’s voucher schools. “I would like them to have more transparency,” said Evers in response to a question from voucher school advocate Dan Steininger.

One area Evers has an issue with, but no immediate solution is Department of Veterans Affairs. “Of all the state agencies, financially, our veterans affairs agency is the most troubled,” said Evers in response to a question on improving conditions for military veterans.

Evers concluded his remarks asking all of the Milwaukee leaders in the room, and not just their lobbyists, to support finding common ground on issues and moving the state forward.

All of Wisconsin will get the chance to watch Evers lay out his vision for the state on January 22nd. The governor is scheduled to deliver his first State of the State speech that evening.

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