Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Evers Pushes New Programs, Spending

Republicans warned him not to include budget items they oppose. He will anyway.

By - Feb 15th, 2021 10:32 am
Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will ignore Republicans’ pleas to not recommend big spending increases and other “divisive” issues in the budget he hands the GOP-controlled Legislature on Tuesday. Instead, Evers is poised to call for the passage of a 2021-23 state budget that envisions a broader role for state government and swings for the progressives’ fences by:

-Legalizing marijuana sales to those over 18, which goes beyond his 2019 call to decriminalize it. Evers says recreational marijuana users could pay $165 million a year in taxes.

-Letting counties double – from 0.5% to 1% – their local sales tax and let municipalities with populations of 30,000 or more begin charging a 0.5% local sales tax, if voters pass referendums allowing the surcharges. State Revenue Department reports say Milwaukee County collected $79.9 million from its 0.5% local sales tax in 2020. And, under Evers’ proposal, six Milwaukee County cities – Milwaukee, West Allis, Wauwatosa, Greenfield, Franklin and Oak Creek – could ask residents to approve an additional 0.5% local sales tax.

-Creating a $500 annual tax credit for caregivers, which would cost $200 million.

-Authorizing $329 million in “Badger Bounceback” economic initiatives, including a new $100 million venture capital fund and $200 million in new help for small businesses hurt by the pandemic.

-Raising nursing home reimbursement rates by 11% in each of the next two years, which would cost $240 million, and raising pay for their workers.

-Allocating “almost $200 million” to make Broadband more accessible in southwest and northern Wisconsin, something Evers announced in his January State of the State speech.

Last week, Evers got one more recommendation he could fold into Tuesday’s spending wish list. It’s not a coincidence that the Retirement Security Task Force, headed by State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, reported its findings six days before Evers announces his budget.

The Task Force said state government must make sure Wisconsin residents save for retirement. Specifically, it called for creation of a “WisconsinSaves” program – an automatic IRA “enrollment program for Wisconsin businesses of all sizes, which would utilize best practices to extend access to retirement savings to nearly one million Wisconsinites.”

Godlewski also said a new “401(K)ids” program could provide every “child born in Wisconsin with a target-date investment account to build long-term wealth and provide meaningful financial education… to build wealth, buy their first home, pay for education, and save for retirement.”

Tuesday, Evers may also echo these statistics from the task force report: “Current projections show, if nothing is done, Wisconsin will have over 400,000 seniors living in poverty by 2030, and the state will need to spend $3.5 billion more on programs relating to senior care.”

Evers and Godlewski are eyeing 2022’s political landscape. Evers must decide whether to seek a second four-year term; Godlewski plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Ron Johnson, who has not announced whether he will seek re-election.

But Republicans don’t share the Democrats’ vision of state government that casts a wider safety net over more residents. In a Feb. 3 warning, the new cochairs of the Joint Finance Committee that will draft the Legislature’s answer to the governor’s budget sent Evers this blunt appeal: “Do not send the Legislature another budget like your first budget that was full of tax increases, excessive spending and divisive non-fiscal policy,” said Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born. “Our citizens deserve better.”

Specifically, Marklein and Born asked Evers to not include three changes he asked for in 2019: Eliminating drug testing to qualify for public aid, in-state UW tuition for “illegal aliens,” and “gutting common sense, pro-growth reforms” like the right-to-work law and the GOP law that ended prevailing-wage standards.

Another Republican leader, Senate President Chris Kapenga, said legalizing recreational marijuana won’t become law, because the governor “shouldn’t sacrifice the safety of the people of Wisconsin—particularly our children—in pursuit of the mighty dollar.”

Other changes Evers asked for – and didn’t get – two years ago that he may repeat Tuesday include: Raising Wisconsin’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. Issuing drivers’ licenses and IDs to undocumented residents. Allowing the refinancing of student debt. “Banning the box” on job applications that ask about previous criminal convictions.

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who Evers defeated in 2018, in an interview with Walker’s lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, said the changes Evers recommended two years ago repaid “the far left that was behind his campaign.”

Kleefisch, who plans to run for governor next year, interviewed Walker on the 10-year anniversary of Act 10 — the bill Walker got Republican legislators to approve that repealed collective bargaining for most public employees and made them pay more for health care and pensions.

Walker noted that Evers has not called for Act 10’s repeal, although his 2019 budget proposal was a “manifesto of the left.”

Steven Walters has reported on Wisconsin’s Capitol since 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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