Analysis: Gov. Evers’ Missed Opportunities In His State Of The State Address

Governor Tony Evers gave his second State of the State speech earlier this week before a joint-convention of the Wisconsin Legislature. In the speech given from the Assembly Chamber, Gov. Evers laid out his policy priorities for the remainder of the legislative session and beyond.

For the full text of his speech, please click here.

Rather than bore you with the standard accounting of the speech that you can find elsewhere, your always helpful staff here at MacIver thought we would, instead,  share with you our analysis of the speech and the deeper insight that you can only get here. 

In terms of presentation, Gov. Evers did a decent job delivering his speech. Loved the UW band playing in the aisle to finish off the speech. Speech was filled with back-handed compliments to the Republican Legislature and a couple of jabs directed towards predecessor Scott Walker. 

Bit of unsolicited advice to Governor Evers here at the top: Get over your obsession with Walker. Move on. While a very small part of your radical base loved the dig about visiting a prison, no one else cared. Rise above it, Governor.

The speech was relatively short, 33 minutes long. For comparison, Walker’s shortest speech before the legislature was 17 minutes. The Gov.’s speech was better than last year, but this is clearly not Evers’ strong suit. If he was better at giving a speech and more comfortable in this type of setting – statewide audience, cameras everywhere, all attention directed towards him – he would have and should have given a longer speech with more details about this priorities to make a strong case directly to the taxpayers of the state that his vision is the best for the future. 

Instead, the Governor briefly talked about six supposed priorities in a two sentence paragraph at the very end of the speech. Less than five seconds on each priority. Struck us as an unusual and a very brief way for the Governor to make the case for specific policies he wants to become law.

“From nonpartisan redistricting and investing in our rural communities, to addressing youth vaping and capping the cost of insulin, to closing the dark store loophole and getting PFAS out of our water, we’ve got work to do. There’s no rest for the elected, folks, and we’ve got a lot to get done before anyone takes a vacation.”

Evers didn’t change the minds of any of the legislators sitting in the chamber, nor make a convincing argument to the public about his vision for the state because he spent so little time actually talking about those priorities. He should have spoke for another 15 to 20 minutes to really draw attention to these important issues, but he didn’t. A missed opportunity for the Governor.

Strange that there was no mention of Foxconn in the speech. Just a few short weeks ago, there were headlines all over the state that the Governor was concerned about Foxconn and perhaps the state needed to “renegotiate” the agreement to better protect taxpayers. A big issue to leave out.

The Governor talked briefly about the success made on criminal justice reform, an issue that he campaigned on extensively back in 2018. In fact, Governor Evers promised during his campaign to reduce the prison population by 50%. He assured the public that he could reach that goal without releasing any serious or violent criminals. One of the ways he was going to reduce the prison population was to finally change the law so that “minor” drug-related offenses would not automatically send someone to prison. Evers even claimed that 75-85% of our inmate population is incarcerated because of drug-related offenses.

We pointed out at the time that his proposal was a pipe dream and that his numbers on drug convictions were simply not true. According to statistics from his own Department of Corrections, 11% of the prison population is incarcerated because of drug-related offenses. Last time we checked, 11% is no where close to 85%. And the Governor apparently thinks he is not going to make any headway on his campaign promise any time soon because in his first state budget, he proposed spending $250 million in bonding for new building projects for the Department of Corrections. If the Governor was truly going to reduce the prison population by 50% there would be no need for so much new construction. Part of this building boom is to deal with the problematic Lincoln Hills but the Governor has indefinitely postponed the agreed-upon date set by the legislature to shut it down. Here again, we found it odd that just like Foxconn, Gov. Evers did not mention a plan of action Lincoln Hills.  

Thrown on top of all this the fact that the Republican legislature recently introduced a new tougher-on-crime package, so it seems highly unlikely that the Governor will be able to accomplish his campaign promise to significantly reduce Wisconsin’s prison population and immediately close Lincoln Hills.

The Governor failed to mention in his remarks that not one of his fellow Democrats voted for that additional $500 million in K-12 funding.

The Governor did predictably talk about education in his SOS speech but it was what he decided not to talk about within education that was truly fascinating. The Governor mentioned that “working together, we were able to invest more than $500 million in K-12 education, including the first increase in special education funding in 10 years.” The Governor failed to mention in his remarks that not one of his fellow Democrats voted for that additional $500 million in K-12 funding. Not one. He apparently forgot to implore his own party members to get on board the bipartisan train. Nor did he thank Speaker Vos, Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald, Rep. Nygren or Sen. Darling for their work securing the additional education funding. He did take time to point out that he vetoed in $100 million more in per pupil aid, a creative use of his veto pen that many legislators sitting before him believe is unconstitutional. One of his passive aggressive digs that will not win him any new friends in the Legislature. 

But probably the most disappointing aspect of the Governor’s State of the State speech is that, once again, Gov. Evers choose not to discuss the education crisis we are facing in Wisconsin. Just 40% of our K-12 students are proficient in math or reading. Just 40%. That means six in ten of our young students are NOT performing at grade level. Grade level. Yet, the Governor can’t make time in his only primetime speech of the year to draw attention to this problem and, more important, outline his plan to improve our schools and the performance of our students? 

Taxpayers have invested billions of dollars lately into Wisconsin’s K-12 education system and we are not seeing the results our children deserve.

It would be utterly laughable if this wasn’t such an important topic for the future of our state. Taxpayers have invested billions of dollars lately into Wisconsin’s K-12 education system and we are not seeing the results our children deserve. We need as a state to have an honest conversation about how well our children are doing and what we need to do to help them do better. Spending significantly more money on schools is apparently not working. It’s not even moving the needle. We will not be able to succeed as a state nor will we be able to achieve prosperity for all Wisconsinites if less than half of our children are doing okay in school. 

The one subject in education he did take time to discuss is student debt. Gov. Evers announced that he is forming a Task Force on Student Debt that will work to make “higher education available to more folks in our state.” 

Taxpayers and parents should be aware of what Governor Evers did NOT say here. Governor Evers did not announce he was extending the tuition freeze again, a proposal that actually lowers the cost of higher education for students and their parents in Wisconsin. If tuition is frozen, students take on less debt to obtain their degree. Ever since Gov. Walker instituted the tuition freeze back in 2013, it has saved the average student attending the UW system tens of thousands of dollars and proven to be immensely popular. Well, at least with everyone but the UW administration. So what does it mean that Gov. Evers did not endorse continuing the tuition freeze? It probably means his task force will propose debt forgiveness of some kind, zeroing out any debt a UW graduate has incurred. Problem is that pushes the “solution” off of the 150,000 UW students and onto the backs of all taxpayers in Wisconsin. Taxpayers beware.

If tuition is frozen, students take on less debt to obtain their degree.

We really shouldn’t be surprised by Evers’ approach on student debt. In his proposed budget, Gov. Evers’ attempted to raise taxes on small businesses, farmers and average investors so he could provide tax relief to a select few. The Governor isn’t concerned about the welfare and success of all Wisconsinites. It seems he prefers to create new government programs that target only a chosen few rather than policies that allow everyone to prosper.

The Governor spent the bulk of his speech talking about the plight of the Wisconsin farmer and ways state government can help alleviate the current dairy crisis. Evers pointed out that Wisconsin leads “the nation in farm bankruptcies” and that “we are losing more than two dairy farms a day.”

To combat this crisis, the Governor announced that he is calling a special session of the legislature to consider his three-pronged plan to help rural communities. First, the Governor would like to create the Wisconsin Initiative for Dairy Exports with the expressed goal of increasing our dairy exports to 20% of the US milk supply by 2024. This effort would also include the creation of a Farm-to-Fork program to connect farmers with universities, technical colleges and other local businesses. Second prong of the Governor’s plan is to establish the Office of Rural Prosperity which “will provide a one-stop shop” for people from rural communities looking for government resources or assistance. Last, the Governor wants to form the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to “help promote agriculture and rural economic prosperity.” The cost of the Governor’s rural legislative package is estimated to cost approximately $8 million. 

The Governor did not discuss that he proposed severely restricting the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit.

Given agriculture’s importance to Wisconsin and the health of our economy, it’s no surprise to see the Governor addressing the plight of our farmers. Agriculture and food processing provide almost 12% of the jobs in Wisconsin.

The Governor did not, however, discuss the fact that in his first budget, he proposed severely restricting the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit. He didn’t discuss why he thought proposing to raise $500 million in taxes by limiting the credit would be good for agriculture or our farmers. Agriculture is literally in the name of the credit. While the Governor claimed that he would “spare” farmers from the reductions, he failed to realize or care that 25% of the manufacturers hit by the tax increase were deeply connected to the agriculture industry. Food manufacturers save over $30 million a year in taxes thanks to the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit. That savings is plowed back into their operations and the local economy. The Governor never explained, back when he introduced his budget in early 2019 or this week during his State of the State address, how significantly increasing taxes on this key component of our economy could possibly help the plight of the farmer and quell the dairy farm crisis. It raised more than a few eyebrows on Wednesday to see the Governor come full circle on farmers. Politics makes us all do the strangest things.

More noticeable than his agrarian conversion was the Governor’s failure to acknowledge or discuss a more significant development that will have a much bigger impact on Wisconsin’s farmers than his proposals. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiated by the Trump Administration. Mexico and Canada are important trading partners for our farmers. Mexico is the number one dairy foods export market and Canada is third. Wisconsin farmers send $2 billion’s worth of product to Mexico and Canada each year. Overall, all Wisconsin businesses send over $10 billion’s worth of products to Mexico and Canada. By making it easier for our farmers and all businesses to ship their goods and products to these countries, President Trump’s trade deal could be the most significant and positive change for agriculture and farmers in this country in over a decade. 

President Trump’s trade deal could be the most significant and positive change for agriculture and farmers in this country in over a decade.

Again, it seems like this was a missed opportunity for the Governor. A missed opportunity to rise above the divisive politics that have become the norm and show the Wisconsin public that he is their Governor more than just another partisan Democrat. Why not praise the USMCA and say that my rural initiative will work nicely with President Trump’s trade agreement? Maybe he is afraid that by talking about the benefits of the USMCA it will draw attention to Speaker Pelosi’s indefensible delay tactics that prevented this help from reaching our farmers sooner? Regardless of the reason, it was a missed opportunity for Evers to show Wisconsinites he is Governor Tony Evers rather than just Democrat Tony Evers.

Last, we would be remiss if we didn’t spend a second on the Governor’s redistricting proposal. We say a second because the proposal is not worth the paper it is printed on or the website it is posted to. This is ridiculous. 

“In the coming days,” he said, “I will be signing an executive order to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission who will draw The People’s Maps.” According to the Governor, this commission will consist of hand-picked Wisconsinites who will travel the state to draw “fair, impartial maps for the Legislature.” 

Apparently the Governor has forgotten about his oath of office. The oath of office he took on day 1 of his administration where he swore to support the Constitution of the United States AND the Constitution of Wisconsin. Here is the problem for the Governor. Wisconsin’s constitution clearly assigns the responsibility of redistricting to the legislature and the legislature alone. Per Article IV, Section 3 of our State Constitution, the Legislature has the sole power to determine how the maps are drawn, solely based on population size, nothing more. The Wisconsin Constitution also gives the Governor a role. The Governor has the responsibility to sign or veto the map presented by the legislature. 

Clearly, this People’s Maps ruse is nothing more than a political stunt meant to curry favor with editorial boards and socialists who believe that the only reason their great ideas aren’t fully implemented is the diabolical and evil redistricting process. The current redistricting process has been the law in Wisconsin for over 100 plus years. It is part of our constitution. If the Governor feels so strongly that the process needs to change, there is a method to change our constitution. He knows this, but he is more interested in gamesmanship than actually getting something done. He didn’t walk Wisconsinites through how they could change the constitution and redistricting. He just made another hollow partisan declaration.

It was a missed opportunity for Evers to show Wisconsinites he is Governor Tony Evers rather than just Democrat Tony Evers.

Not to mention that if our maps were truly screwed up or nefarious, the courts would step in to right such an injustice. That’s the way our checks and balances system is set up to work. The US Supreme Court recently rejected a lawsuit that alleged our maps were drawn improperly. 

The fact that the Governor spent so much of the little time he spent at the podium on a subject like redistricting that he knows will go nowhere is emblematic of the entire speech. While the Governor certainly scored points with parts of his base and rabid Democrats in the legislature, he missed a greater opportunity. A greater opportunity to speak to all of us as one Wisconsin, as Wisconsinites. Not just Democrats or socialists. Not just partisans or Republicans. The Governor missed an opportunity to move all of Wisconsin forward.

The MacIver Staff