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Since coming into office, Governor Tony Evers has struggled to reconcile his personal belief in bipartisanship with the highly partisan election that actually put him in office. He defeated the polarizing incumbent Scott Walker by a very slim margin of only 29,227 votes. That victory did not come from Tony Evers winning over republicans with his folksy moderate message. The good ole boys in the grand ole party stood by their man in 2018.
Some pundits have talked about Walker’s base weakening, and the difficulty of running for a third term, but the actual vote count shows that Walker got all the support anyone could ask for. There were 2.7 million voters in 2018, that’s the most ever in a Wisconsin midterm election. Nearly half of those voters went republican. Evers won because his turnout was even higher. According to analysts, his support among “young energetic” voters was key. That energy was fueled by hatred of Scott Walker and Donald Trump, not love of milquetoast Tony.
After the election, Walker’s people immediately began organizing to recall governor Evers and the republican party went to war against the new administration. They restricted the new governor’s power with a package of last minute bills before he came into office. They broke decades of precedent to delay or deny his appointments. When he called special sessions on popular, urgent issues, like guns, COVID-19, the pandemic election, police racism and violence, the legislature refused to act. They’ve gavelled out of seven such special sessions in less than a minute each time. Meanwhile, they kept passing “veto-bait,” poorly conceived, unpopular bills that they know the governor will not sign, but that they can spin on Mark Belling’s radio show to rile up loud support among rabid conservatives. These bills would have restricted voting, given stimulus money to the rich, expanded police power and mass incarceration, and done other absurdly unnecessary harm to the people of Wisconsin.
Despite childish behavior, conservative extremism, and unprecedented partisanship of their elected officials, republican voters remained loyal. They stood by Donald Trump in 2020, again turning out unprecedented numbers in this state. At the recent state GOP convention, rank and file party members backed Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
There are many theories about why conservatives have such loyalty while their party is going off the rails, but one thing is certain: Tony Evers has not figured out how to inspire moderate republicans to leave their party. If fall-out from Donald Trump’s ridiculous yet horrific January 6 coup attempt was not enough to break GOP party unity, then Evers’ quivering appeals to bipartisanship and stern, but reconciled frowning certainly won’t.
When talking to progressives and people of color, the governor’s staff claims pragmatism, but when it comes to moderate republicans, they act like hopeless romantics, endlessly chasing “the one who got away.” They pine for republican votes while ignoring the people who actually put Evers in office, and that’s probably a bad strategy for his re-election effort.
A spurned gift
On July 8, Tony Evers fully turned his back on progressives and voters of color to give his lost love the biggest present he could. He signed the corrupt, unpopular, conservative republican budget, with minimal vetoes. “This morning,” he said at a press conference in Whitefolks Bay, “I’m signing one of the largest tax cuts in Wisconsin state history… not only deliver[ing] on my promise to cut taxes for middle class families by 10%, I’m cutting middle class income taxes by 15%.”
Like a fawning simp, Evers embraced this tax cut without acknowledging that it entirely excludes the working poor and doesn’t really target the middle class. Most of its benefits go to people earning more than $80,000 per year. The republican tax cut was a giveaway to the richest Wisconsinites, and Tony Evers wrapped it up, threw a bow on it, and took credit for it.
Of course, republicans spat on this gift. Senate majority leader Devin LeMahieu, (r-Oostburg) released a bitter statement, denouncing Evers for taking any credit on the budget: “he and his team threw in the towel… He is not a fighter. He is not a leader.” LeMahieu is a dull career politician, a junk mail peddler, and a Koch brothers stooge, but it’s hard to disagree with his hot take on the governor.
A leader or a fighter would have made another choice on this budget. Evers could have vetoed the entire thing and demanded a real budget. That’s what Wisconsin Citizen Action called on him to do. If he had, republicans would be faced with a choice: either pass a new, improved budget or make Wisconsin revert to the 2019-2020 budget, which would be much worse for everyone. The republicans had vowed they would not write a new budget, but Evers could have called their bluff. He could have leveraged provisions like badgercare expansion, actual education funding, prison reform, and a more targeted tax cut and blamed republicans for putting federal recovery money for education and any funding increases or responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in jeopardy. Of course, they’d blame him in turn.
Nervous Tony would probably not fare well in this game of chicken against reckless ideologues, so it’s probably for the best that he didn’t try. He did have a third choice, though. He could have vetoed just the tax cut, and demanded that republicans pass a new one that focuses on working families, rather than the richest people in the state. That would have kept education funding and other budget gains intact, while driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots in the conservative’s coalition. This strategy would only risk a tax cut for the rich and could have driven a critical conversation with Wisconsin’s rural working class about how their party’s tax cut left them out. Instead, Evers chose to leave them out as well.
Seems like Evers is not looking to woo and win over any and every republican voter, he specifically wants the rich ones. He may have bought into the disproven myth about Trump’s intractable white working class base, or maybe the “education governor” is just categorically unable to talk to people without college degrees. Most likely, Evers wanted to claim ownership of a tax cut that also delivers for wealthy liberals. Their campaign donations did help fill his re-election coffers to more than $7 million in the first half of 2021. This is amerika, where money buys elections, not votes.
The rest of the budget
Delivering the biggest possible tax cut to the wealthy was clearly the top priority, but Wisconsin republicans had a few other goals as well. Governor Evers did little to get in their way. Wisconsin law gives the governor an extraordinarily powerful line-item veto. Evers could have crossed out not only sentences and provisions, but single digits, words and punctuation marks. Despite the incredibly conservative budget put before him, he used the veto power minimally, only cutting 50 items. By comparison, in 2017, republican governor Scott Walker made 99 vetoes to the budget passed by the republican legislature. That’s right, Tony Evers was twice as nice to republicans as their own governor has been.
The second highest republican priority after cutting taxes for the rich was forcing people back to full time, low-wage, unfulfilling work following the pandemic. To this end, they refused badgercare expansion, tried to cut unemployment benefits, and their leader, assembly speaker Robin Vos went around misrepresenting the tight labor market as a work shortage caused by lazy people and criminals.
Anyone who cares about yawning amerikan wealth inequality understands that a “work shortage” is just a low unemployment rate, which is actually desirable. It lets workers demand higher wages and more benefits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, working people suffered and died while the richest people in amerika got richer, and bought themselves space ships with tax-payer money. The already unprecedented wealth gap is expanding as the world careens through ecological demise toward societal collapse. In these circumstances, doing crimes against the rich rather than working for them just makes sense.
Another goal the joint finance republicans pursued was giving as little money to public education as possible. They wanted to rely almost entirely on $2.3 billion in federal recovery money, even though every single member of their party voted against the law creating that money. The law’s purpose was to boost education spending and help school children catch up for their lost year, not to replace state funding and enable education cuts. That’s why the law required states to maintain their existing funding levels. Accustomed to dealing with Evers and his spineless democrats, state republicans played chicken with the federal department of education, and proposed cuts anyway.
They lost. The department of education didn’t blink. Then state organizers proved that fighting back works. They came for the republicans, shaming them in their home districts, and making them back down. Well, sort of. Republicans appeased the feds by increasing Wisconsin’s education budget on paper, but they used convoluted budgetary trickery to turn the increase into a property tax reduction. Lower property taxes, like most things politicians love, disproportionately benefits the wealthy. Again chasing his dream of republican swing voters, Evers embraced this move, like a sloppy lovesick teenager. He even attempted to reframe it as delivering on a campaign promise to restore two-thirds state funding for schools. Nevermind that he meant to keep that promise by increasing the state’s commitment to public education, not by cutting taxes for property owners.
Minor, but bipartisan prison expansion
Our focus at abolishmke is on ending prison and police, so let’s look more closely at what the Evers and republican collaboration produced regarding Wisconsin’s prison system. The budget that passed and that Evers signed expands the state’s capacity to incarcerate and increases police funding. It moves in the opposite direction of demands rising out of the uprisings last summer.
The governor’s veto message starts by detailing everything he liked and kept in the republican budget. For police and prison, the budget:
- Provides $1 million over the biennium to expand career and technical education opportunities at correctional facilities.
- Provides $200,000 annually to expand the Windows to Work Program.
- Provides an additional 7.4 assistant district attorney positions.
- Expands the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion Program by $2.5 million in fiscal year 2022-23.
- Provides $100,000 annually for a sexual assault victim services grant.
- Provides $455,000 in fiscal year 2021-22 to purchase equipment for the State Crime Laboratories to test for synthetic drugs and drug analogs.
- Provides $227,400 annually to purchase and maintain body-worn cameras for conservation wardens.
- Provides $700,000 in fiscal year 2021-22 to purchase and maintain body-worn cameras for State Patrol troopers.
- Provides $2 million for grants to law enforcement agencies to purchase body-worn cameras.
- Provides over $1.3 million in state funds over the biennium to extend the long-term service award program for protective positions within the Department of Corrections and Department of Health Services.
- Provides $1.75 million in state funds over the biennium to support a $5 hourly wage add-on for correctional officers and sergeants working within an institution with greater than a 40 percent vacancy rate.
- Invests in juvenile justice youth aids to counties with an additional $4.7 million GPR in each year.
In most of these cases, as we detailed previously, the democrats wanted to spend more, but republicans dialed back to save for the tax cut. Whether we’re talking about good things like treatment alternatives and diversion funding, or bad things like hiring more prosecutors, Evers and his party generally wanted more. His veto message didn’t mention it, but he also kept $1 million for snitch houses.
To be fair, at the start of the budget process, governor Evers did propose a number of reforms he knew would be removed, just like republicans know how he’ll treat their veto-bait bills. In other words, he played politics with prison reform while incarcerated people continued to suffer and die.
In his veto message, Evers stated: “The people of our state have loudly and consistently demanded that we – as a state and as a country – deliver on the promise of justice, fairness, and opportunity. This work is far from over, and the Legislature must be held to account for their failure to take meaningful action (sic).” Evers himself has also failed to take meaningful action, which is why we’re calling on his party to hold him to account by signing on to our minimal demands.
One of those demands is that he veto any prison expansion money from the budget, which he did not do. Looking at his veto list, we could find four (#25-28) that included keywords relating to police and prison. One of them extended a re-entry assistance program a year longer than republicans intended, which is good. The other three adjusted bureaucratic control of funds without increasing or decreasing amounts. In short, despite hearing public calls for decarceration, Governor Evers did not veto any funding for the prison system or police out of the budget. He actually hoped to spend more on mass incarceration than the republicans did.
We can still insist that he expand pardon criteria and change DOC policies to reduce the prison population. To do so, we have to convince him to value the votes of progressives, the working class, and people of color more than the wealthy moderate republicans he’s irrationally infatuated with. Perhaps its time we start playing hard to get.