by Baylor Spears, Wisconsin Examiner
January 23, 2024

Gov. Tony Evers laid out his one-two punch playbook to work towards some of his key policy priorities, including addressing workforce challenges, during his sixth State of the State address Tuesday evening: First, urge the Republican-led Legislature to take action on issues that they have continually rejected, and second, take action on the issue that won’t require legislative action. 

Evers started on an optimistic tone, celebrating some of the bipartisan accomplishments of the past year, including increasing local government funding and securing funding for renovations of the Milwaukee Brewers’ baseball stadium, and used that as a jumping off point to push Republicans to work with him on ongoing divisive issues. 

“Our accomplishments don’t mean our work is finished. If anything, our progress demands our efforts continue,” Evers said. “There is, as always, more we can do, and that work begins in earnest here tonight.”

Evers spent much of the time calling on Republicans to take action on issues where they have blocked Evers’ proposals, while announcing steps that he would be taking to advance his agenda without needing legislative action. 

Declaring it the “Year of the Worker,” Evers urged the Legislature to address two of the “greatest challenges facing” Wisconsin: the state’s difficulties in retaining, attracting and training workers to address workforce shortages and Republicans “disinterest in working toward a meaningful, bipartisan plan to do something about it.” 

“Folks, ‘no’ isn’t a workforce plan. Asking more kids to work isn’t a workforce plan,” Evers said, alluding to a Republican bill that would allow some minors to work in the child care field. “Giving more big breaks to millionaires and billionaires isn’t a workforce plan. These are not serious proposals to address generational, statewide issues.” 

He spoke after months and months during which Republicans lawmakers have largely ignored his calls to fund Child Care Counts and other priorities and opted to propose their own bills.  

Republican lawmakers seemed poised Tuesday evening to continue that trend. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) told reporters following the speech that Evers didn’t have “a lot of new ideas,” describing the speech as the “rehashing of old things that have been proposed over the course of the past few years and failed.” 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) speaks to reporters following Evers’ address. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Vos said the biggest disappointment is that Evers didn’t touch on potential tax cuts. Republican lawmakers announced four tax bills Tuesday morning.

“With a record surplus in the till, we didn’t hear him mention a single thing about giving relief back to the average taxpayer,” Vos said. “That’s different from what Republicans offered today. We actually put forward four different proposals for Gov. Evers to pick from, making retirement income exempt from the state income tax, an income tax reduction for anybody who’s working, a child care tax credit and another for those who are married.” 

Vos said that Republicans would move forward with the bills and that he hoped Evers would  sign them into law. 

Evers identified three long-term solutions to the workforce challenges: finding a solution to the looming child care crisis, expanding paid family leave and investing in K-12 public education, including K-12 schools and technical colleges and universities. All were included in special session legislation he presented in August that GOP leaders in the Legislature went on to rewrite to their own preferences, leading Evers to veto the measure.

Evers recently directed $170 million to extend the Child Care Counts program, which provides financial assistance to child care providers, into 2025. 

“I directed the funding that I could, but it wasn’t enough,” he said. “Wisconsin child care providers will soon receive their final payment from the federally-funded portion of Child Care Counts, so, the emergency $170 million I directed last fall as a stopgap measure now kicks in.

Evers said that Republicans are now “on the clock” to make the investments necessary to prevent the collapse of the child care industry. 

Evers also noted that he has proposed investing $240 million to jumpstart a paid family leave program, which could help provide private sector workers with 12 weeks of paid leave. 

“Republicans rejected my proposal. Twice,” Evers said. “Paid leave is the right thing to do for kids and families, and it’s also what we need to do to compete for and keep talented workers.”

Evers also announced that he will be launching a teacher apprenticeship pilot program, creating a task force on the health care workforce and establishing a state Office of Employee Engagement and Retention. 

“If anyone on either side of this aisle has a better plan than mine that not only prevents the collapse of our state’s child care industry but also helps us compete against our neighboring states for talent and invests in public education at every level to prepare our kids for the future, let’s hear it,” Evers added. “I will work with any legislator, any partner, any stakeholder who’s willing to engage in meaningful conversations on these issues to do the right thing for Wisconsin.

Evers finds funding for Pelican River conservation project

On the environment, Evers announced that he is approving an additional conservation easement covering 54,898 acres of the Pelican River Forest. He also urged lawmakers to approve the release of PFAS funding. 

The Pelican River Forest project — the largest forest conservation effort in state history — has been held up by Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee, who have prevented money from the state Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program from being used. A grant from the U.S. Forestry Service Forest Legacy Program (FLP) has been secured to fund the project instead, Evers said. 

“Conserving and protecting our natural resources and land continues to be a top priority for my administration,” Evers said. “In partnership with the Biden Administration and the Conservation Fund, we’ve approved the conservation easement for the Pelican River Forest’s remaining acres to protect the forest for generations of future Wisconsinites to use and enjoy. This is a big deal, folks.”

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will move forward with the acquisition of the easement with the Conservation Fund, which is expected to be completed by the end of the week.

Evers also called on Republicans to release $125 million in funds allocated in the budget to address PFAS — or “forever chemicals.” 

“I signed the budget last July. Today is January 23rd. It’s been over 200 days, and Republicans have not released one cent of that investment. A $125 million investment to fight PFAS statewide is sitting right here in Madison because Republicans refuse to release it,” Evers said. “That’s breathtaking. Republicans, please release this funding so we can get it out to the families, child care facilities, schools, businesses and communities across our state who need it.”

Republicans have spent several months negotiating with the DNR and other stakeholders over how to structure legislation that would help get the money used. The bill has passed the Senate, but has yet to progress in the Assembly, which has led to calls from Evers for the finance committee to release the funds. 

Reproductive rights ‘under attack’  

Evers also vowed, again, to veto any bill that would make reproductive health care less accessible in Wisconsin. His promise came four days after Wisconsin Republicans recently introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 14 weeks if it received approval from voters and on the same day that the Assembly health committee advanced it to the Assembly floor.

“Each time I’ve asked Republicans to restore Wisconsinites’ reproductive freedom to what it was the day before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, they said, ‘No.’ And because of that, Wisconsin women spent over a year experiencing firsthand what it’s like to live in a state that bans nearly all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest,” Evers said. 

He gave thanks to the lawsuit filed by Democrat Attorney General Josh Kaul that challenged the state’s 1849 law that has been widely interpreted as applying to abortion. A Dane County judge recently ruled that the law applies to feticide, not abortion, which led Planned Parenthood to restart abortion services in the state. However, Evers warned that reproductive rights are still “under attack.”

“Republicans are advancing a bill that would ask Wisconsinites to strip themselves of some of the basic reproductive freedoms that were just recently restored to them and [with] no exceptions in cases of rape or incest,” Evers said.

The bill — AB 975 — was amended during an executive session just hours ahead of Evers’ address to include rape and incest exceptions.  

Evers also announced that he would be taking steps to expand access to contraception for BadgerCare Plus members. 

“Wisconsin, we’ve proven this past year that we can do big things when we’re willing to do them together,” Evers said to close out his speech. “I know we can build upon these efforts in 2024, and together we will.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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