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Evers MATC

Gov. Tony Evers greets English language learners Friday at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

MILWAUKEE — Gov. Tony Evers downplayed confusion Friday about his handling of the state’s legal fight against the federal health care law, contending there was “no reversal” from his State of the State address Tuesday to the actions taken Thursday by Attorney General Josh Kaul.

At a Milwaukee technical college Friday, Evers also contended the state has a “moral obligation” to give in-state college tuition to so-called Dreamers, or people brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Evers said, “I have fulfilled a promise I made to the people of Wisconsin by directing Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw from” the multi-state group that is seeking to overturn in court the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The statement triggered confusion and controversy that partially overshadowed one of Evers’ first gubernatorial moments in the statewide spotlight.

Republican legislative leaders quickly responded that Evers was breaking the law in issuing such a directive. If made unilaterally, they said it would violate a law they passed during a controversial lame-duck session that curtailed the powers of Evers and Kaul, both Democrats, in part by giving the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee authority to make that decision.

Speaking Friday, Evers said he never intended to direct Kaul to break the law.

“When I said that, I always believed — and I still believe — that Josh Kaul as the Attorney General will follow the law and will go according to what they put together in the lame-duck session,” Evers said.

The day after the televised address, Evers changed course, as a spokeswoman said Wednesday that he had not directed Kaul to “take any specific course of action.”

Kaul’s office then announced Thursday that it would seek approval from the Joint Finance Committee to withdraw from the lawsuit, consistent with the widespread understanding of the newly rewritten law.

Speaking Friday, Evers said he always understood and meant to convey that withdrawing from the lawsuit would require finance committee approval.

“So in my worldview — and I know that’s not everyone’s worldview — there’s nothing inconsistent with what I said and what’s actually going to happen,” Evers said.

Evers’ public about-face came amid the release of memos penned by Kaul and the Legislature’s nonpartisan reference bureau, both saying the governor lacks authority to unilaterally order the state to withdraw from the lawsuit without the finance committee’s approval.

If the GOP-controlled finance committee rejects Kaul’s request, as is likely, Evers vowed to “use the bully pulpit” of the governor’s office to rally public support for the move.

Bob Delaporte, spokesman for Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said Friday, “We are reviewing the letter from the AG. We will talk about it in caucus and with leadership.”

Evers toured the Milwaukee Area Technical College Education Center on Friday, visiting with students in carpentry, masonry and English-language courses. Evers said he will propose, in his budget, a large increase in funding to schools to educate English-language learners.

He also reaffirmed his support for two measures addressing concerns of some in Wisconsin’s Latino immigrant community: giving driver’s cards to state residents living in the U.S. illegally and in-state tuition to Dreamers.

Speaking of the latter proposal, Evers said: “First of all, it’s a moral obligation. But also we need every person at the table to participate in our democracy and our economy.”

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.