Since the fall elections a strange thing has been happening in Wisconsin politics. Gov. Tony Evers and Speaker Robin Vos have sought a reset on their relationship. Evers met with Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMehieu shortly after the election and Vos has talked about working more cooperatively with the Democratic governor.
It’s not a love fest, but given the past four years where the sides didn’t so much as nod to each other in the corridors of the Capitol, it’s progress.
That progress continued in Evers’ state of the state speech last night. His address was clearly calculated not to go out of his way to rile Vos or his caucus. Evers avoided hot button issues like abortion, marijuana and taking the federal Medicaid money. Instead, he called for more money for schools, local services, mental health, cleaning up PFAS and tax cuts. And the coordinated Republican response? Gosh, that’s a lot of money. Except for the tax cuts where that’s not enough money.
The net result was a strong suggestion that what will be debated is just how much more funding will go to those priorities and how the spending will be structured. Evers wants a lot more money to go to public schools while Vos wants an expansion of vouchers and charter schools. Evers wants an across the board 10% tax cut while LaMehieu has floated a flat tax mostly benefitting the rich. Evers wants 20% of the sales tax to go back to local governments while LeMahieu has suggested 1%. Nobody has ruled out increases for mental health and PFAS, it’s just a question of how much more.
Evers introduces his budget next month, kicking off a process that typically ends around July 1st. Between now and then a whole lot can go wrong. Vos and LaMehieu have caucuses full of flame throwers. But by firing Michael Gableman and ending his circus of an “investigation” into voter fraud, and by banishing the unhinged Rep. Janel Brandtjen, Vos seems to have taken the upper hand over the nut jobs. When Donald Trump and his local loon squad tried to take down Vos in a primary last August they needed to brush up on their Machiavelli. When you go for the prince you’d better succeed.
And for Evers’ part, he’s won his reelection. He no longer has to worry so much about making symbolic gestures to every liberal interest group or to give a nod to every item on the progressive check list. Yes, I think the left (and the public in general — these are popular positions) is right about abortion, marijuana and Medicaid, but items like those were nonstarters with Vos and mentioning them only served to widen the divide.
Let me finish with pure, admittedly tenuous, speculation. It could be that Vos sees liberal Janet Protasiewicz winning the Supreme Court race in April and the Court overturning — in time for the 2024 elections — the gerrymandered maps that lock in his majorities. Maybe he’s trying to nudge his party back to the middle in preparation for a more competitive playing field in a purple state.
Whatever their motivations, Vos and Evers appear to now see it to be in their best interests to focus on differences in degree instead of differences in principle. And that could be good for the rest of us.