There is no question that the budget process in Wisconsin needs to be reformed. It doesn’t work, and it has not worked for a long time. The question of how to reform it is a more complicated one.
This year, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers faced unprecedented obstruction from legislative Republicans. Only because he is a skilled administrator, and a genuinely reasonable man, was Evers able to make the process work. He did this through a combination of smart framing, personal flexibility and savvy use of his powerful veto pin.
Evers came out of the gate with a budget that reflected the values he highlighted during the 2018 campaign, at the conclusion of which he defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker. That was a savvy move, as Evers invited Wisconsinites to see his “People’s Budget” as what it was: the codification of the agenda that voters chose last November. That caused Republican legislative leaders to blink on a few issues. So the budget they sent Evers, while generally unsatisfactory, was better than the budget that would have been produced under Walker.
The Republicans were obnoxious in their approach, however, and they seemed at every turn to want to provoke a fight with Evers. The governor refused to take the bait, however. While he could have vetoed the entire budget, thus provoking a standoff, Evers instead decided to work off the template he had been given. While he was appropriately miffed by what he referred to as “the unfortunate lack of interest by some Republicans in the Legislature to work together and engage in constructive, bipartisan dialogue,” the governor recognized that he was elected to “put politics aside to get things done.”
That was a mature response that distinguished Evers from his partisan rivals. But it was not a surrender. Because Wisconsin has what is frequently described as the most powerful gubernatorial veto pen in the nation, Evers was able to make dramatic improvements in the budget.
While Evers did not get his full “People’s Budget,” he correctly observed, “Wisconsin made an important down payment on that promise by signing a new budget that includes the most substantial general school aid increase in a decade, investments in special education, increased revenue to fix our roads, and critical investments in broadband expansion, Wisconsin Shares, child welfare, rural hospitals, and transit, among other pressing priorities.”
Now that the 2019-21 biennial budget has been signed into law, we can reflect on how the budget process might be improved. The problem is that this reflection will, necessarily, be seen through a partisan lens.
Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who defended executive authority when Walker was governor, now complain that Evers is not respecting legislative intent. Democrats, who once argued that limits should be placed on the veto power, are now thrilled that Evers is wielding it.
There are sound arguments to be made for rethinking how the veto power is constructed and allotted. There are equally sound arguments to be made for reforming the way in which the legislative Joint Finance Committee operates. But these process issues are not the most serious concerns.
The biggest problem is the gerrymandering of the Legislature, which is now so severe that legislators are less interested in respecting the will of the people than at any time in Wisconsin history. Consider, for example, that even though 70 percent of Wisconsinites approve of Medicaid expansion and it would provide better health care for thousands, Republicans removed it from Evers’ budget.
Last November, Wisconsinites elected Democrats to every statewide post and gave 53 percent of their votes to Democrats seeking Assembly seats. Because the Assembly is gerrymandered, however, Republicans occupy 63 of 99 seats in the chamber. And now, unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has supported such unfairness by ruling that federal courts must butt out when it comes to partisan gerrymandering.
Because they are so radically delinked from the reality of our politics, Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald denied that reality. Rather than recognize the 2018 results as a call for change, they set out to disempower Evers and then tried to hijack the budget process.
Evers outwitted them, thanks in no small measure to his own popularity and his veto pen. But the governor bemoaned the fact that "this budget that I have now signed is, in many ways, insufficient.”
"This is, in large part, due to the unfortunate lack of interest by some Republicans in the Legislature to work together and engage in constructive, bipartisan dialogue, and instead devoting far too much time to huffing and puffing,” added the governor.
Evers suggested that “the people of our state would have been better off in this budget if we could have found more common ground, even if it meant each of us not getting everything we wanted." And he was, of course, correct.
But the desire for common ground is not going to mean much if Vos and Fitzgerald lead caucuses that are unconcerned with November election results. As it now stands, the pressure on these legislative leaders comes from out-of-state special interests and right-wing billionaires, who have the capacity to stir up primary challenges to Republicans who might seek common ground.
Evers is not naive when he argues that Wisconsinites want a more cooperative and conscientious budget process. He’s absolutely right. But that cooperation and conscientiousness can only be achieved if Wisconsinites give Evers and the opponents of gerrymandering the power to address the corruption of our elections — and our governance — by politicians who are more interested in preserving their sordid little careers than in doing right by Wisconsin.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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