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Cap Times Idea Fest: Evers unloads on Republicans' pandemic response
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Cap Times Idea Fest: Evers unloads on Republicans' pandemic response

Gov. Tony Evers is optimistic about Democrats’ efforts to stave off a Republican veto-proof supermajority in the state Legislature, and former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances with state voters.

But about his own chances of working with Republicans to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic? Not so much.

“The only thing they’ve been able to tell me is ‘I’m against this, I’m against that, I’m against this,’” Evers said Thursday during a one-on-one Cap Times Idea Fest interview with political reporter Briana Reilly.

"At the end of the day, we need help from other leaders to say, 'This is important,'" he said.

The interview covered a variety of themes, including politics, Evers’ budget priorities and the likelihood of seeking reelection (he hasn't made up his mind). But just like it’s done with the daily lives of the governor's constituents, the pandemic dominated the conversation. It came on a day that Wisconsin posted 3,132 coronavirus cases, eclipsing the previous record of 2,892 last Saturday, and nine more deaths, bringing the total to 1,424. Wisconsin ranked third on Thursday for the per-capita transmission of the disease.

Also, on Wednesday the state took the dramatic measure of announcing plans to open a field hospital in West Allis to handle the overflow from besieged hospitals.

Evers blamed the outbreak on the lack of Republican leadership, and on a conservative state Supreme Court that struck down his stay-at-home order last spring. His mask order is being challenged in court. And two days ago he directed his health secretary to issue an order limiting crowds in bars, restaurants and other establishments to 25% capacity.

Republicans are mulling a court challenge to that as well.

“We feel confident that this will stay,” Evers said. “But you never know. We haven’t had much luck.”

In a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report this week, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he would try to negotiate a new set of rules with Evers if the mask order is overturned, but wouldn't push for a vote on a mask mandate.

“I feel like we’re in a box legally,” Fitzgerald told a reporter.

Evers said the pandemic has blown a hole in the state budget, prompting a $350 million cut in current year spending and a $70 million lapse in the last fiscal year.

“The coffers at the state level are a little shaky, to say the least,” he said. “Revenue’s down.”

When budget time rolls around again next spring, he again plans to propose expanding Medicare, which has been consistently opposed by Republicans to the tune of well over $1 billion.

“I’m hopeful again, against all odds, that Medicaid expansion will be part of this discussion,” he said.

But he said the state needs federal aid. The money from the first coronavirus relief package, used to help small business owners, renters, farmers and local governments, runs out on Dec. 31, and a quick agreement on another relief bill is unlikely.

“It may look better in the spring, but it’s not going to be gone,” he said. “So we need money for testing, tracing, making sure we have all the proper equipment, things like that. And we’re going to need money from the federal government for that.”

Evers expressed frustration with Republicans, who say they want to negotiate a plan to deal with the pandemic, but have opposed all science-based measures.

“We were already in the process of a slow, methodical but safe way of opening up the economy where parts of it had been closed down,” he said.

Despite being labeled a “tyrant” by those opposing the stay-at-home order, Evers maintained that Wisconsin’s order was “extremely liberal” in designating essential workers.

“There were states around us that never had their construction industry going,” he said. “We had the construction industry going throughout the entire time. So when people say it was a lockdown, it was not a lockdown at all.”

When the court struck down his “safer-at-home” order, he said, it opened up the entire economy at once, ramping up the contact people had with one another and giving the virus the chance to spread unchecked.

“That was just a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Despite the looming budget shortfall, Evers said his budget priorities are unchanged, with education funding, healthcare and roads high on his list.

He said the Republican engineering of electoral maps in 2000 has contributed to the breakdown in bipartisan agreements on a number of issues, including ones in which Republicans have bucked popular majorities in the state, including Medicaid expansion, which garnered 70% support in statewide polling last year.

He said he doesn't consider any Republicans as enemies, and said he likes Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Fitzgerald, whom he’s dealt with for at least 20 years.

“It’s not that I find him a disagreeable person to talk to,” he said of Fitzgerald, who is likely to win an election for Congress next month. “It’s his positions, I think, are not consistent with mine many times, and frankly with many of the people of the state of Wisconsin. You talk about face coverings and safer at home and limits on gatherings, all those things poll well.”

He’s optimistic that when maps are redrawn next year, legislators will be more beholden to voters.

“When you have competitive districts, you’re not going to get reelected if you just hang out at the edge and consistently say no,” he said. “You need to compromise.”

He’s also optimistic, despite the fact that Republican leaders have offered little support, for police reform measures he proposed after widespread racial justice protests erupted after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. When Evers called a special session to deal with the proposals in August, Vos and Fitzgerald closed the session without action.

Evers said there was bipartisan support for several proposals that would increase police accountability and transparency, and those will likely be brought back when the Legislature come back in January.

After Evers made his proposals, Vos formed a task force to issue a report on the issue, a move for which Evers offered lukewarm support, despite that the panel is co-chaired by Democratic Rep. Shelia Stubbs, the first Black woman ever to represent Dane County. Task forces have been convened in the past on the issue, he said, resulting in no meaningful legislation.

“Everybody’s got a report,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what a task force is going to do. I think we know the issues. It’s around use of force, it’s around training, it’s around making sure that everybody is held accountable. A task force is a task force.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.