Wisconsin Republicans, Evers clash over tax cuts, schools

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans who control the state Legislature are poised to clash with newly reelected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over tax cuts, how to fund local governments and whether to expand the private school choice program to wealthier families.

But even though Evers and Republicans are on opposite sides of issues like abortion and pushing for a flat income tax rate, they also are talking about forging a better relationship in the coming years than they had during Evers’ first term, which saw the governor cast the highest number of vetoes in state history.

“I think I’m a pretty reasonable person,” Evers told The Associated Press when asked how he plans to work better with Republicans in the upcoming legislative session. “We’ll meet when we need to meet.”

Evers meeting with Republicans, in and of itself, is a shift from the past four years when Evers almost never spoke with GOP legislative leaders, let alone negotiate. Evers and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos met privately at the governor’s mansion Friday for the first time in two years.

“I’m tired of fighting,” Vos said in an interview prior to their meeting. “I’m tired of every single aspect of our society being in some kind of political battle. … So I’m trying not to draw super bright lines in the sand because I actually want to generate some consensus if we can.”

Even so, Evers has already made clear that he’s against much of what Republicans say they want to do during the two-year legislative session that begins Jan. 3.

Evers opposes the flat income tax rate Republicans are making a priority, he’s against growing the school choice program and he’s promised to veto any bill that keeps the state’s 1849 abortion ban in place, even if it allows for exceptions not currently in place. He wants to see the law struck down entirely.

Evers’ reelection victory also virtually assures that Republicans will not be able to rework Wisconsin’s election laws going into the 2024 presidential election as they wished. Still, both sides agree that some changes could be approved, including allowing absentee ballots to be processed ahead of Election Day and increasing the security of absentee ballots for members of the military.

Evers and legislative leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, all say they hope to have a better working relationship this session.

“We all hope that this session will be different than the last one, that there are going to be some renewed opportunities to try and move forward substantive policy,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, whose caucus will have little opportunity to make progress towards its policy goals outside conversations with the GOP majority.

Republicans grew their majorities in the Legislature this past year, falling just short of a supermajority that could override Evers’ vetoes, but having enough seats to pass whatever they want even with losing votes of more moderate lawmakers.

Like many states, Wisconsin enters the year with a projected $6.6 billion budget surplus, fueled by federal pandemic aid and stronger-than-anticipated tax revenue due in part to inflation.

The fight will likely come down to how much to cut taxes, and which ones, versus increasing funding for K-12 schools and local governments.

“We don’t have to be choosing between reinvesting in our communities and providing relief to the ordinary people,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said. “We can do both.”

Republicans support lowering income taxes to a flat rate of 3.5%. Democrats support Evers’ plan, which targets the middle class for an income tax cut, while also calling for increasing funding for K-12 public schools and local governments.

Evers will release his two-year budget proposal covering July 1 through June 30, 2025, on Feb. 15. The Legislature will then spend months tearing it apart and building their own plan, before likely passing it in late June. Evers can then reshape it with partial vetoes.

Vos has said he’s open to using part of the state sales tax to fund counties, cities, towns and villages, while Evers has called for increasing shared revenue 4% each of the next two years.

Evers said he was open to the sales tax idea, but didn’t commit to supporting it over his plan.

“All I know is that we have the resources available, no matter what happens with sales tax, to provide more money for our municipalities,” he said. “And so that’s that’s where I’ll be.”

Evers was also taking a wait-and-see approach on school funding, saying he doubted Republicans would actually call for expanding private school vouchers to all people, regardless of income. Vos said he hopes to at least increase the amount of the voucher.

Evers has proposed a $2 billion increase in funding for public K-12 schools, something Republicans have said they won’t consider without a compromise that includes some growth in the choice program.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Venhuizen on Twitter.

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