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Wisconsin Gov. Evers calls for more state spending on mental health and water pollution cleanup

State of the State Wisconsin
Morry Gash
Wisconsin Gov, Tony Evers delivers his State of the State speech Tuesday evening in Madison.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is launching expanded efforts to improve mental health, reduce drinking water contamination, and help financially-limited local governments.

The Democratic leader unveiled his plans during his State of the State speech Tuesday night in Madison.

On mental health, Evers said his administration has spent $30 M in federal pandemic relief funds over the last two years to expand school-based mental health services in a program called Get Kids Ahead.

State of the State Wisconsin
Morry Gash
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers speaks during the annual State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Madison, Wis.

Now, the Democratic Governor wants to make that a permanent, state-funded program, at a price tag $270 M, as well spend about $200 M more to help adults.

"So tonight, I am declaring 2023, the year of mental health. And together with our Get Kids Ahead initiative investment, we'll be making an overall investment of about $500 M to expand access to mental and behavioral health services, for the people of Wisconsin," Evers said to applause from some in the audience.

Evers spoke before both houses of the State Legislature with Democratic lawmakers to Evers' left, and Republicans to his right. He said both groups should support his plan.

"Mental health deals with everybody here, you know? Not just this side. This side also," Evers said, looking first left, then right.

Evers said he also wants to spend $100 M to reduce contamination from chemical compounds known as PFAS.

"We're going to increase PFAS testing, sampling and monitoring statewide, so we can find these contaminants and get them out of the water. We're going to make more resources available to on the ground partners to respond to PFAS contamination when it happens. And we're going to work to increase awareness about the dangers of PFAS, so folks can take steps to keep themselves and their loved ones safe,'' Evers said.

Evers also responded to calls from Milwaukee and local officials around Wisconsin who said they need more state aid. He said he's willing to work with Republicans on a budget plan that would send up to 20% of the state's sales tax revenue back to local governments.

"This commitment will insure our communities see growth in shared revenue in the future, after years of state investment not keeping up with community needs. And it means more than a half billion dollars per year in new resources, to invest in key priorities, like EMS, fire and law enforcement services, transportation, local health and human services, and other challenges facing our communities," Evers said.

Evers can make the spending plans because the state is heading toward a $6.5 B budget surplus and a $1.7 B rainy day fund.

Labor, environmental and progressive groups are among those praising Evers' speech.

But Republicans control the legislature, and in a written statement, the Wisconsin GOP contends Evers, "Failed to propose any significant solutions to Wisconsin's most pressing issues like inflation, crime, workforce shortages and struggling schools." Republicans claim the governor "is throwing money at problems."

Screenshot 2023-01-25 at 10.28.33 AM.png
Screenshot from WisconsinEye
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Racine County) delivers the Republican response to Evers.

In the official GOP reply speech, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Racine County) said his top priority is making living in Wisconsin less expensive.

"We know families struggle with inflation on everything from the price of eggs to the cost of a new home. That's why I'm proud of Wisconsin Republicans have led the way for the last decade, cutting state and local taxes by over $22 B. In fact, it was recently announced that Wisconsin families have the lowest tax burden ever recorded. And, while we should all take pride in that fact, we still have a long way to go," Vos said.

Evers, who also backed the most recent state tax cut, said Tuesday night that he'll support another one. But he repeated earlier promises that he wants it to focus on the middle class, and not wealthy Wisconsinites through a flat tax plan GOP leaders are endorsing.

Evers is scheduled to take his message around Wisconsin the next couple of days, beginning Wednesday in Waukesha. He'll have more to say about the proposed state budget in about three weeks.

Editor’s note: A portion of the audio is from WisconsinEye.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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