New Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers delivered his first biennial budget proposal to the Republican-controlled Legislature Thursday night. At issue is a multi-billion-dollar spending plan that affects nearly every person in Wisconsin. Evers has been unveiling many of the policy points over the past few weeks, on issues from education to the environment. Republican leaders are calling it a “liberal wish list.”
Evers jumped right in during his budget address, which he calls “the people’s budget,” and says was crafted by listening to people across Wisconsin. He moved to decriminalize marijuana possession for 25 grams or less and grant driver’s licenses and ID cards for the undocumented. He vocalized allowing for in-state tuition for students who went to a Wisconsin high school and have lived here for three years, regardless of whether they were born in this country.
And in a moment that was especially well-received by Democrats in the legislature, he said that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in a democracy — noting the state’s redistricting process.
“People should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around. So earlier this week, we announced that we’re creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission," Evers said. "And, as it turns out, the people of Wisconsin agree. According to a recent Marquette Law Poll, 72 percent of Wisconsinites want nonpartisan redistricting in Wisconsin. And not just Democrats. 63 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Independents support nonpartisan redistricting, too.”
Evers said — to uproarious applause from Democrats — that he would also be directing the Elections Commission and Department of Transportation to work together to implement automatic voter registration in Wisconsin. That means that when someone applies for or renews a driver’s license, they are automatically registered to vote unless they opt-out.
Evers told lawmakers that his budget included issues Democrats and Republicans could all agree on. Things like curbing homelessness and expanding broadband access. But he frequently ventured into what was presumably more partisan territory. "That starts with healthcare," he said. "I’ve said all along we need to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, and according to a Marquette Law Poll, 62 percent of Wisconsinites agree. 82,000 more Wisconsinites will have access to affordable, quality healthcare coverage."
Evers says accepting federal Medicaid dollars would allow the state to invest in programs that improve access and affordability across the state.
He said the state’s current approach to transportation, is unsustainable. He proposed raising more than $600 million in new revenues to fix roads, bridges and highways. “We’re going to be increasing fees for titles and heavy trucks, and we do have to raise the gas tax — but as I promised all along, we’re sure as heck not going to raise the gas tax by a dollar," he said. "We’re going to raise it $.08 a gallon.”
He says that’s well below what it was raised by in Minnesota or Ohio, and that it would be counter-balanced hereby repealing what he called a hidden tax — the mandatory markup — that currently costs 14 cents a gallon. Evers said that would actually make it possible for residents to pay less at the pump than they do right now.
The budget was a non-starter for Republicans in the legislature. State Sen. Alberta Darling(R-River Hills) said Evers’ proposal would raise taxes for a family of four by an additional four thousand dollars. She said Republicans are not going to let that happen. Darling, who is co-chair of the joint finance committee, suggested Republicans will create their own budget using the base budget from the current fiscal year.
“We’re going to start with the base budget that we’re going to build, that’s going to put us on the right track. We’re not going to go down this way," said Darling. "We’re not going to let this happen. We said we’re not raising taxes and this raise is so out of sight, it’s just outrageous, and I’m very, very disappointed.”
GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the economy is strong right now, but that people want to keep more of the money that they earn in their pockets. “The problem in Tony Evers’ budget is that it just spends too much. It spends way more than Wisconsin can afford.”
But Vos says Republicans support investing in public schools, expanding broadband and providing tax relief, which he singled out as a high priority. “Certainly not a property tax increase at the highest level that we’ve seen in almost a decade," Vos added.
The Joint Committee on Finance is charged with presenting a budget to the Legislature for approval. The spending plan then will go back to Gov. Evers for his signature … veto … or tweaks, with his veto pen.
Watch Evers' biennial budget address courtesy of Wisconsin Public Television.