We could skip a step. Gov. Tony Evers could just submit a blank piece of paper in February as his proposed budget. Then Speaker Robin Vos could fill in all the numbers and send it back to Evers for his approval.
That would be a more honest and direct process than the sham that is about to unfold at the Capitol in the first half of 2023. Evers will kill all kinds of trees on a budget proposal that will be created by DOA and be DOA as soon as it hits the Legislature.
Just as they have the last two cycles, the Republicans will toss out Evers’ budget and start from scratch. They will write a thoroughly Republican plan, heavy on tax cuts for the rich, and Evers, after talking a good game about a veto, will sign the thing, ignore the conservative policy, and take credit for it.
Evers should have taken control of this game back in the summer of 2019. He should have vetoed that budget, drawn a line in the sand for a few important things that he would go to the mat for, and waited Vos out. That not only would have imposed some Democratic priorities on the budget, but it would have shaped his relationship with Vos. It would have made a very loud statement to the Speaker that Evers was his equal, and maybe even a little better than equal.
I suppose it’s possible that Evers’ calculation was that that kind of brinksmanship would hurt his chances for reelection. I don’t think so, but nonetheless Evers has won a second term and it seems unlikely that he’ll go for a third. So, why not do what he should have done four years ago? When he introduces his budget in a couple of months he could make it clear that he simply won’t sign a budget without a few bottom lines.
Let me suggest two.
First, a nonpartisan redistricting commission for 2031. The ship for the next decade has sailed, though if liberals can pick up a fourth seat on the State Supreme Court in April the current heavily-gerrymandered maps could be revisited. In any event, by demanding the commission for the next redistricting after the 2030 census, Vos might go along with it simply because he doesn’t figure to still be around by then. He’s already the longest serving Speaker in Wisconsin history. Redistricting is at the heart of everything because we’re a purple state that has a deep red Legislature largely (but not entirely) because the maps are rigged. Fixing this is fundamental to democracy.
Second, make big investments in young kids. The state’s got a projected $6.6 billion surplus and all Vos can think about is even deeper tax cuts for the wealthy. He engineered a $3.4 billion tax cut, weighted to the highest earners, in the last budget and Evers signed it. Now, he says that another $3.4 billion cut, again aimed at top earners, is just the starting point for the next budget.
My own view is that we should take a bunch of that money and pour it into kids. Attack childhood poverty aggressively. Bolster pre-natal care, invest in pre-school and the early grades. Reduce class sizes. Pay teachers in those grades more to attract the best talent and sure, negotiate with Vos over his demand for more vouchers. Keep the lion’s share of the money in public schools, but vouchers aren’t the worst thing in the world. If that’s Vos’ price for supporting the other investments, well, alright. Nothing wrong with more choices for poor families and the competition is a good thing for public schools.
I’m skeptical of various studies that show huge specific numbers for savings down the road with these kinds of investments. But it just stands to reason that if we invest in kids at an early age and we can head off medical, social and criminal problems later, we’ll save some money. Exactly how much is anybody’s guess and anyway that’s not really the point. The point is that it’s just the right thing to do and, oh by the way, healthier, happier, stronger kids grow into the same kinds of adults and those adults are more productive. You want a stronger Wisconsin economy? You want fewer angry, frustrated young adults, wanting to blow up the whole system? There’s no better way to get the former and head off the latter.
Also, just politically, does Vos really want to be against pre-schoolers? Fair maps poll at over 70% and have the support of virtually every newspaper editorial board in the state. I have to figure that a comprehensive, long-term, well thought-out program to invest in young kids would do every bit as well with the public. Take the argument to Vos. Put him in a corner.
I know, I know. Up until now this just hasn’t been Evers’ style and, since he won reelection maybe he’s now convinced that he’s been doing things the right way. But on the other hand, he might see the next four years as the last in his political career. He clearly cares deeply about kids and this would be a chance to leave office with a powerful lasting legacy.
Of course the Governor is not going to submit a blank piece of paper for his budget. But he should submit something that is worth more than the paper it is written on.