Sad Tony and the Proposed Budget that Can’t

"I'm not about to cry!"
Tony Evers, tryin’ hard during his little speech for the DNC.

Last week, Governor Tony Evers introduced his new state budget plan, and, as far as the prison system is concerned, it didn’t matter at all. There are some decent provisions included, like legalizing marijuana, expanding TAD funding and closing youth prisons without requiring the construction of new ones, but the proposal falls short of closing prisons and our other defund the DOC demands.

At first glance, it certainly looks better than Tony’s last budget, which expanded funding for the DOC, offered few reforms, and aggressively broke campaign promises by expanding funding for the prison organizers have campaigned hardest to close, MSDF.  This year Tony managed to jump over the very low bar he’d set for himself.

The Wisconsin Justice Initiative has published a full list of prison-related provisions, for anyone interested in the details, but we’re not going to bother discussing them further, because Tony’s budget is not going to happen. Surely the governor’s office spent a lot of time and energy carefully balancing the demands he heard at the December 8 public hearing with what he thought might win some bipartisan approval and actually become law, but from our perspective, that was time wasted. Bipartisanship is clearly dead in Wisconsin, especially around prison issues.

Assembly speaker Robin Vos, smirking wistfully at Tony’s state of the state address, Feb 19, 2021.

Republican leadership immediately and unsurprisingly denounced Tony’s budget plan. The governor’s office pushed back, putting out a press release about his plan’s “bipartisan praise, support” which included lukewarm quotes from Republican members of the legislature on his economic, education, and other proposals. Conspicuously absent from those supportive statements was anything about the reforms to the prison system.

We’re not the only ones who recognized Governor Evers’ budget reveal as a non-event. Even President Joe “reach across the aisle” Biden overshadowed the Governor’s big reveal by scheduling a visit and townhall in Milwaukee on the same day at the same time. “We found out today,” Tony whined to Fox News, “and frankly, I’m not sure if I’ll be present… The most important thing I’m doing that day is giving my budget address.”

Anyone who understands Wisconsin’s passive-aggressive culture can see the quiet anger Tony must be harboring beneath those comments. Rumor has it Tony has longed for a position in the next Democratic president’s cabinet as education secretary. Let’s imagine the roller coaster poor Tony must have been on these last few years with those ambitions.

At first, it was all rising peaks. Milwaukee won the bid to host the Democratic National Convention, a great opportunity to showcase his achievements. Then, the primary candidate most aligned with Tony’s ideology of naive centrism clinched the party nomination. All Tony needed to do was demonstrate the effectiveness of the bipartisan approach he and Joe Biden so desperately believe in.

Then the pandemic struck, and even the unifying potential of facing down a deadly common threat together couldn’t bring bipartisan accord to Wisconsin, or the nation. Hot on the heels of the pandemic came the summer’s uprisings. Cities across Wisconsin hosted massive demonstrations, and even riots demanding a check on police and reckoning over anti-Black racism.

As governor of the state that keeps getting ranked as the most racist in amerika (in 2014, in 2017, in 2020, in 2021), Tony Evers took no executive action to meet any protester demands. His response was to play politics, calling a special session and package of reform bills for the gerrymandered and unrepentantly racist legislature to decline. It took them less than one minute. The only executive action Tony Evers took regarding racial justice in the summer of 2020 was sending in the national guard to repress protesters.

In the fall and early things were looking up for Tony’s future ambitions. The centrist candidate he’d pinned his hopes to won the presidency! Unfortunately for Tony, that victory had little to do with moderate coalition-building or centrist Republicans. Indeed, Donald Trump logged the second-highest voter turn-out in US history. The Lincoln Project and Mitt Romney failed and, much as Biden would  rather not admit it, he owes his presidency not to moderation, but to the Democrats’ progressive wing turning out non-voters in record numbers.

Meanwhile, Tony’s bipartisan approach wasn’t winning here in Wisconsin either. He just continues to play a stupid game with the legislature. He proposes bills they’ll never pass, and they pass bills he has no reason to sign. Cabinet seats go to people who inspire voters and get results, so when it came time to chose an education secretary, Biden owed nothing to the moderate wet-noodle politics Tony embodies.

With his future darkened and his present mired in a mix of gridlock and magical thinking, Tony remains undecided about running for a second term as Governor. Maybe if he sits the race out, Wisconsin voters will nominate a candidate who runs on issues proven to turn out voters and who will stand up to and when necessary, bypass the illegitimate gerrymandered and legislature, rather than trying to appease them.