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How will Tony Evers use the State of the State?


by Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch, Wisconsin Watch
January 22, 2024

Forward is a look ahead at the week in Wisconsin government and politics from the Wisconsin Watch statehouse team.

It’s a busy week in the world of Wisconsin government and politics. Let’s dig in.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will deliver his State of the State address Tuesday night, offering his annual assessment of Wisconsin’s strength and outlining his vision for the state in 2024.

Last year the governor used the speech to declare 2023 “the Year of Mental Health” in Wisconsin — an effort that received limited buy-in from GOP lawmakers, who sharply scaled back his proposals during the state’s budget-writing process.

With just a few weeks left in the Legislature’s biennial session, and knowing that Evers and GOP leaders continue to butt heads, here are three things we’re watching for in the governor’s address on Tuesday.

Abortion policy

Since Roe vs. Wade was overturned two summers ago, abortion has been the most potent political issue in both Wisconsin and national politics. Highlighting the importance of Wisconsin and the issue in this year’s presidential election, Vice President Kamala Harris will be in Waukesha County today to commemorate the 51st anniversary of Roe.

A Dane County judge ruled last month that an 1849 law believed to ban abortion does not actually apply to the procedure, but obstacles to accessing the procedure still exist in Wisconsin. Those include requiring an ultrasound at least 24 hours prior to an abortion; a 24-hour waiting period to have an abortion, meaning a woman who wants to have an abortion must travel to a clinic twice (once for a consultation and again for the procedure); and a requirement that a physician must supervise the use of abortion pills.

Now that the procedure has resumed in the state, we’re watching Tuesday’s address to see if Evers will challenge Republicans on those restrictions.

This afternoon an Assembly committee will hear testimony on a GOP-authored bill — supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — that would outlaw abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy if voters approve the restrictions via referendum. Current law prohibits abortions 20 or more weeks postfertilization, according to the UW-Madison Collaborative for Reproductive Equity.

How to use $4 billion surplus

Evers and Republican lawmakers have been grappling over what to do with Wisconsin’s $4 billion surplus for months. Republicans sought to implement a sweeping overhaul of income tax rates in the state’s current two-year budget, but Evers vetoed large portions of their plan, arguing it benefited the state’s wealthiest residents over middle-class families.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, who would like Wisconsin to implement a flat tax, said earlier this month that GOP senators are working on a compromise tax cut plan that would likely expand the state’s second tax bracket to include more middle-income earners.

Evers in August proposed spending $1 billion on workforce and child care initiatives, including a paid family and medical leave program and $365 million to support child care providers. Republicans turned that proposal into a $2 billion tax cut that Evers vetoed.

We’ll see if he sticks to his proposals, calls for a compromise cocktail of tax cuts and spending, or if the funding will roll into next year’s budget debate.

Bipartisan agreement

Some lawmakers want to see Evers use the address to usher certain bipartisan legislative efforts across the finish line over the next eight weeks.

“There’s some big things we can agree on that we can do legislatively that we don’t have to rely on the courts to do,” said Rep. Scott Krug, ​​R-Nekoosa, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections, adding that he wants everyone “listening to what each other needs the last eight weeks.”

Krug told Wisconsin Watch his top bipartisan priority is getting legislation passed that would allow election clerks to start processing absentee ballots the Monday before Election Day. Evers said he would support the bill, so long as lawmakers don’t attach any poison pill amendments.

The legislation would “restore a lot of confidence on both sides” when it comes to election results by helping avoid overnight shifts in vote totals as large municipalities report results from absentee ballots, Krug said.

Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, agreed that the governor’s Tuesday night address is an opportunity to map out the last few weeks of the legislation.

“May and June we’re really, really busy and really productive,” Goyke said of the Legislature’s ability to provide additional funds to local governments and pass the state budget. “And it’d be great if we use Tuesday’s speech to get back to that mode rather than hunkering down (and) getting ready for re-election.”

The Milwaukee Democrat, who is running for Milwaukee city attorney in April, said he wants to see lawmakers come together and approve several bills related to the state’s justice system. Bipartisan bills that would bar minors from being prosecuted for acts of prostitution; expand alcohol and drug treatment programs to also treat Wisconsinites with any mental illness; and broaden criteria for who can have a criminal record expunged are among those introduced by lawmakers so far this session.

Evers often casts himself as a pragmatist working with both sides to get things done for Wisconsinites, but many of his top priorities are Republican nonstarters. Tuesday’s address offers him a platform either to continue badgering his opponents or to welcome bipartisan proposals to his desk.

The governor will deliver his State of the State address at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Watch it on Wisconsin Eye.

What we’re watching this week

Monday: Vice President Kamala Harris visits Waukesha County to “highlight the harm caused by extreme abortion bans,” per her office. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is running for a third term in 2024, will appear alongside the VP, her staff told Wisconsin Watch.

Not to be outdone, the Assembly Committee on Health, Aging and Long-Term Care will hold a public hearing at 2 p.m. in Capitol Room 417N on AB975, which would ban abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy.

Tuesday: Universities of Wisconsin President Jay Rothman takes questions from a panel of reporters at a WisPolitics/Milwaukee Press Club luncheon at the Newsroom Pub, 137 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee, at 11:45 a.m.

Wednesday: The Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee holds a public hearing at 9 a.m. in Capitol Room 411 South on a Legislative Audit Bureau report evaluating the Department of Safety and Professional Services’ credentialing process. Read our previous coverage.

The Assembly Local Government Committee holds a public hearing at 11:01 a.m. in Capitol Room 328NW on AB957, which would block local governments from regulating CAFOs.

Thursday: The Assembly will vote on a wide-ranging set of legislation during a 10 a.m. floor session, including a bill requiring the DNR to establish a statewide wolf population goal in its wolf management plan.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.