Budget Battle Ends with GOP Win

 Joe Murray  |    August 12, 2019

On November 6, 2018, Wisconsin voters elected a Democrat for governor and large Republican majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature. After eight years of single-party GOP rule in Wisconsin, Democrats finally had a seat at the table. And in January when Tony Evers was sworn in as Wisconsin’s 46th governor, a new era of divided government began. 

The million-dollar question in January was how, or if, the Republican legislature would get along with the new Democratic governor. To say that the relationship got off to a shaky start would be an understatement. Prior to Gov. Evers’ swearing in, the GOP legislature called itself into extraordinary session and passed legislation to restrict the power of the new governor. Evers followed these actions by promptly vetoing GOP legislation to cut income taxes and restrict abortion. Not a good start

But the true litmus test for getting something done and the single most important task of each two-year legislative session is passage of the biennial state budget. The budget funds K-12 schools, local governments, natural resources, health care, the UW system, sets tax rates and much more. If the legislature could pass only one bill each session, it would be the state budget bill by necessity

When Evers introduced his original budget in late February, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald essentially labeled the budget “DOA”— dead on arrival. Most of the new governor’s nonfiscal policy proposals were promptly removed from the budget, and Republicans proceeded by crafting their own version of the 2019-21 budget that removed over $1 billion in proposed tax increases and reduced overall spending proposals in the Evers budget by $2 billion dollars

As Republicans reshaped the Evers budget to spend less, tax less and regulate less, the question still remained about what Evers would do once the GOP-crafted budget bill reached his desk. Would he veto the entire bill and force the legislature to start over, or would he sign it after using his powerful line-item veto authority? Some in his party felt he should veto the entire bill and force the GOP-controlled legislature into a prolonged and confrontational fight over policy differences. In the end, Evers decided to sign the document after applying his veto authority on 78 separate items

Who won the budget fight?

Perhaps the best way to judge which side came out on top of the state budget battle is to quote the major players who guided the budget process from start to finish.

Gov. Tony Evers: “While this budget makes critical investments in the areas that were included in ‘The People’s Budget’, this is a down payment on the progress we must make in the next biennial budget.  Vetoing this budget would have meant passing up the opportunity to provide investments in special education, the largest general school aid increase in decades, increased revenue to fix our roads, and critical investments in broadband expansion, Wisconsin shares, child welfare, rural hospitals, and transit, among other priorities.” — WisconsinEye, July 5, 2019

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos: “At the very least, the final budget is no longer a liberal wish list; it’s a more fiscally responsible plan. I want to thank the members of the Assembly Republican caucus for their hard work in getting the budget done in a conservative way ... We right-sized the budget, invested in the state’s priorities and reduced taxes on the middle class.” — Robin J. Vos Statement on the Biennial Budget, July 3, 2019

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald: “It appears that the biggest lack of communication that existed during the budget process is between the governor and legislators from his own party. Many items supported by Republicans and signed into law by the governor today were opposed by Senate Democrats on the floor just last week.” — Wispolitics.com, July 2019

State Sen. Alberta Darling, Co-chair Joint Finance Committee: “I hope the Democrats who stood behind the Governor today but voted ‘no’ on many of the items in this budget, will reflect on the many shared priorities the governor approved. Whether a Republican or Democrat sits in the Governor’s office, I will fight to protect taxpayers and make sure every budget is responsible and sustainable.” — The Wheeler Report, July 3, 2019

State Rep. John Nygren, Co-chair Joint Finance Committee: “Make no mistake, the budget signed by Governor Evers is the Legislature’s budget. The majority of provisions touted by Governor Evers today came directly from Republicans. All of which, we were able to do without expanding welfare, or raising taxes as he proposed.” — Action News 2 (WBAY-TV), July 3, 2019

Budget takeaways

Here are my three takeaways on the outcome of the budget battle between Evers and the GOP-dominated state legislature

Gov. Evers has a pragmatic side: While some in his party wanted the governor to veto the entire budget and fight for months over issues the GOP removed from his original proposal, the governor realized this scenario was a losing proposition. The Republicans were prepared to give him even less if he vetoed the budget, and Evers understood the negative ramifications of such a move. The governor deserves credit for ignoring calls for a total budget veto. Partial victories are better than no victories.

The single-power legislature has more influence over the final product: It’s true that the veto authority of the Wisconsin governor is perhaps the most powerful of all 50 states. But it’s equally true that a single-party legislature has more power to influence the final budget product in the end. A gubernatorial veto can modify the product to a certain extent, but the governor can only modify what the legislature passes. Evers used his veto power where he could and was willing to take the best budget he was going to get.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald are battle-tested and experienced: Vos and Fitzgerald have been in charge of the state Assembly and Senate for nearly a decade, leading their respective caucuses through some of the most significant public policy accomplishments and political fights of the last 50 years. From a policy perspective, one may or may not support what the GOP legislature has accomplished the last nine years, but the changes to tax law, labor law and other major reforms are significant legislative changes. Politically, they have maintained an iron grip on both houses making their legislative accomplishments possible. Experience matters, and Vos and Fitzgerald have a combined 43 years of legislative experience as members of the minority and majority party in the Wisconsin legislature. Evers is dealing with legislative leaders who have “been there, done that.

Now that the budget fight is over, Evers is taking heat from progressives in his party who wanted him to fight harder for his “people’s budget,” and Republicans are receiving criticism from conservative media for spending too much money and not “sticking to their principles.” In the end, a surprisingly pragmatic Evers took the best deal he could get, and the GOP legislature proved it could govern in a new era of divided government.

Both sides didn’t get everything they wanted, but at the end of the day, the final product looked more like a Republican legislative budget than a Democratic governor’s budget.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 

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