Evers 2.0: Will liberal governor go farther left?

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 8, 2022

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Fresh off his re-election win, look for Gov. Tony Evers to double down on his far left agenda in the budget battles ahead.

Republicans on the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee expect nothing less from a Democrat who owes his second term in large part to the leftist bubble of Dane County.

“If you think about it, he doesn’t have anything to lose,” said state Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc), a member of the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee. “He can throw any outrageous things out there.”

And with a record $6.6 billion projected budget surplus, expect this tax-and-spend governor to go on a spending bender in his third biennial budget proposal, to be released by early March. Evers has already called on the Republican-led Legislature to fork over $2 billion more for K-12 schools, and he’s indicated he’ll go all-in on state funding for municipalities with little accountability expected from either.

But Evers still has to deal with the reality of conservative control of the purse strings, and conservatives have been clear that they will again check his liberal spending and policy inclinations. This is a Joint Finance Committee that has pulled hundreds of big government provisions from Evers’ budget proposals over the past four years, basically building the Badger State’s last two budgets from the ground up.

Still, Evers holds a powerful veto pen, which he wielded liberally over his first term, smashing the record going back nearly a century.

Undeterred, state Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), who co-chairs the budget committee, says the proof of Evers’ commitment to compromise will be in his budget document.

“If he sends us a budget more focused on budgeting (and not non-fiscal provisions), we can work with that document,” Born told Empower Wisconsin this week. “If he sends us what he has the last two budgets we’ll do what we have to do.” 

Another grab at Medicaid money

To know where Evers will go on the budget, it’s best to look at where he’s been.

The same governor who has revelled in spending billions of dollars in federal taxpayer-funded pandemic relief, has long been itching to get his hands on Medicaid money. His two budgets have called for accepting the Affordable Care Act’s provision for Medicaid expansion. Expect him to do it again.

Evers’ tired argument is that Medicaid expansion will reduce healthcare costs for Wisconsin residents. Republicans in killing Evers’ healthcare “fix” say taxpayers would ultimately pay the price. A federal government buried in debt north of $31.3 trillion, exacerbated by runaway pandemic-era spending, will inevitably be unable to meet its fiscal commitments. Ultimately, States will be left holding the Medicaid expansion bag.

The Common Wealth Fund found that the median cost of Medicaid expansion for a state will top $100 million, as they are expected to pick up 10 percent of the costs.

The Democrat-controlled congress last year created an incentive to expand in the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, giving newly expanded states a temporary enhanced federal match for their traditional Medicaid population, in addition to the ACA’s 90 percent federal match for the Medicaid expansion group.

Evers also has pitched adding a public option. The public option is a voluntary version of Medicare for All. It allows individuals to forego private insurance for a government/state-government funded option.

“With a Public Option, you can choose to forego private insurance in favor of the government-funded or state-funded option. However, you would not be required to enroll in the Public Option if you preferred to stick with a private plan. The Public Option could be tax-financed, like Medicare for All, or paid for by participants with a traditional pricing structure,” according to Healthline.

The government insurance option could prove costly to rural hospitals statewide, according to a study by Navigant and Americans Healthcare Future.

“A new analysis of U.S. rural hospitals has found that offering a government insurance program reimbursing at Medicare rates as a public option on the health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could place as many as 55% of rural hospitals, or 1,037 hospitals across 46 states, at high risk of closure,” the authors wrote.

In Wisconsin, a public option could put 20 percent of rural hospitals at high risk of closing.

The Badger State has one of the most robust insurance marketplaces in the country. Healthcare experts say a government-run health insurance option could be a competition killer.

Born and Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) warned Evers in past budget sessions against seeking expensive healthcare proposals. It’s safe to say those warnings remain.

More climate change cash

Ignoring the damage done from the Biden administration’s climate change extremist agenda, Evers will continue to drag state agencies and Wisconsin at large toward his costly and unrealistic plan to take the Badger State to “carbon neutral” by 2050. This time, of course, he won’t have outgoing lieutenant governor and failed U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes to serve as the administration’s top climate change warrior. Perhaps it’s for the best. Barnes had a hard time remembering what the climate change committee he chaired did, anyway.

Evers’ last budget proposal called for $4.79 million for his climate change initiatives, including an Office of Environmental Justice with mandates for municipalities and tribal nations to develop carbon free plans. Those costs would be just the tip of the iceberg under Evers’ full plan.

Electricity costs for Wisconsin families would increase by $1,960 in 2050, rising more than $90 per month, the Center for the American Experiment asserts a recent study. Commercial customers like small businesses, grocery stores, and other retailers, would see their electricity costs climb by an average of $6,108 per year through 2050, an increase of over $500 per month. Industrial companies would see electricity bills increase by an average of $262,292 per year, a hike of $21,857 per month. These costs would peak at $472,367 in 2050.

Crime and punishment

You wouldn’t have known it by his last campaign, but Tony Evers ran for governor in 2018 on a pledge to try to cut the state’s prison population in half. The governor ran away from his soft-on-crime and anti-police first term. He has pushed a number of liberal reforms in his previous budget proposals, including a measure to eliminate felony bail-jumping. His allies in “progressive justice” district attorneys offices and courtrooms in Madison and Milwaukee have made bail-jumping an afterthought, releasing dangerous career criminals on stunningly low bail.

Now that the pressure is off, look for the governor to push harder for more liberal reforms to Wisconsin’s criminal justice system, and perhaps return his rhetorical attacks on law enforcement.

Evers has sought to decriminalize marijuana. In his last budget, he pitched legalizing pot, if only to grab the tax revenue weed would offer.

He’s going there again.

“We will have a budget that includes legalizing marijuana,” Evers told reporters just days after his election victory.

Republicans removed Evers’ marijuana plan from the current state budget, and they’re likely to scrap any legalization proposal he includes this time around.

“I’m sure he’ll try to legalize marijuana and focus on Medicaid expansion again. I personally continue to be opposed to both of them, and it’s unlikely we’d support either one of those,” Born said.

Evers is playing to the crowd. A Marquette University Law School poll in October showed 64 percent of those surveyed support legalizing weed. The survey found 82 percent of Democrats in support, 67 percent of Independents, and 43 percent of Republicans. Legislative Democrats are ready to pounce with legislation when the session opens next month. 

While there doesn’t appear to be an appetite from a majority of the Republican majority to pursue full legalization, there may be room for a conversation about medical marijuana.

“I would like to see something on medical. What that looks like, I don’t have any answers,” Kurtz said. He’s not alone among his Republican colleagues.

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) introduced a bill last session that would have created a new state commission to regulate medical marijuana. The bill went nowhere.

Spending frenzy

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee see Evers pushing another grow government budget, significantly adding to the state government payrolls. At the same time, the closed-government Evers administration has allowed state employees to continue to work remotely long after the pandemic has eased. Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to pick up the tab for state government buildings for staff working remotely. 

“Speaking just for Tony Kurtz, that’s one of things I’m going to be focussing on again,” the lawmaker said of the finance committee’s look at right-sizing government. That goes for workforce and property.

According to the Department of Administration, state agencies are requesting some $5.7 billion in total budget increases from the current spending plan, a 10.6 percent hike. Last year,  Evers original 2021-23 budget would have increased government spending by a whopping $8 billion.. It would have created an estimated structural deficit of -$1.3 billion by fiscal year 2025. Republican budget writers carved the budget down to an $87.5 billion spending plan, eliminating the structural deficit.

Flush with cash in the state’s coffers, count on Evers to deliver a bigger-spending budget plan. Kurtz said the governor and his liberal allies will again try to paint Republicans as “evil” for checking spending, but with inflation soaring and a hard recession potentially looming, tax relief and fiscal conservative principles are again the order of the day.

Born said conservatives will resist the pressure to spend on another liberal wish list.

“We have seen two budgets from this governor, and they have been massive spending with big tax increases. That’s a policy to erase all that we’ve accomplished in the state over 10 or 12 years,” Born said. “Folks should be reminded that we’re in a strong financial position in the state because five, six consecutive Republican budgets set us up for that.”

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