How Will Gov. Tony Evers Get Along with the GOP Legislature?


 Joe Murray  |    January 14, 2019
How Will Gov. Tony Evers Get Along with the GOP Legislature

As Wisconsin enters an era of divided government with a Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature, political insiders, lobbyists and legislative staffers all seem to be asking the same questions. Who will newly elected Gov. Tony Evers place in his cabinet? What will the first Evers state budget look like? How will the new governor get along with the GOP-dominated state legislature? Will state government function well and get things done, or will the government spend most of its time fighting?

In January 2019 ‚ÄĒ the first month of the first year of the first term of this new relationship between the executive branch and legislative branch ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs probably too early to answer these questions. But here‚Äôs a few big-picture questions to ponder as a new era in Wisconsin politics begins.

Who will Evers select for his cabinet? 

The first priority for any new governor is putting together his or her team. Evers will select individuals to fill out his cabinet who he believes are qualified to serve and can help him implement his priorities as governor.

After the November election, Evers said he was even open to appointing Republicans to his cabinet if they were the right person for the job. ‚ÄúAnything is open. Whether they‚Äôre Republicans, Democrats, whatever, we have to have diversity, we have to have good, smart people, we have to have the best and the brightest,‚ÄĚ said Evers.

It’s unlikely the new governor will populate his cabinet with too many Republicans, but if he does retain any Walker appointees or appoint other identifiable Republicans to his cabinet, he will be following in the footsteps of at least one former GOP Wisconsin governor, Tommy Thompson.

After his election in 1986, Thompson appointed state Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) to lead the Department of Health and Social Services, one of the largest state agencies in state government. At the time, Cullen was Senate majority leader. In his 1986 campaign, Thompson promised to reform Wisconsin’s welfare system. With the legislature at that time controlled by Democrats, Thompson needed someone with Cullen’s status and relationships to help him pass Thompson’s reforms through a Democratically controlled legislature.

Today, Evers faces a similar situation. Evers was elected by a slim margin over Walker, but the legislature is controlled by large GOP majorities. The GOP legislature and Democratic governor will have to compromise to get anything passed, and that starts with the Wisconsin state budget. Evers has said he wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to get his priorities passed into law. Who he selects as members of his cabinet will set the tone for those relationships.

What will Evers’ first budget include? 

The four top priorities that candidate Evers ran on were:

  • Providing significantly more money for K-12 education.
  • Expanding health care options and lowering the cost of health care.
  • Protecting the environment.
  • Implementing a 10 percent income tax cut for most Wisconsin taxpayers.¬†

His first budget will likely include all four of these priorities.

There were, however, several other significant issues that Evers ran on that could be part of his first budget as well. With Democrats in the minority in the legislature, Evers may decide he needs to fulfill his campaign promises by including selected items in his first state budget bill knowing the GOP legislature will remove them. These could be issues such as new revenues for transportation needs, local governments, protecting water quality, and maybe even collective bargaining for public employees. It’s very likely that Evers’ first budget will generate stiff opposition from the GOP-controlled legislature.

Will the GOP legislature craft its own budget?

One idea under discussion by Republican leaders is to craft their own state budget bill and send it to Evers instead of waiting for Evers to submit his budget as the starting point. While this option is possible, it could backfire on Republicans from a political standpoint. Evers ran for governor on his set of priorities and won. If GOP lawmakers decide to start with their own document and cut the new governor out of the process, Evers could simply veto the entire state budget and force the legislature to start over. This would leave state agencies, local governments and school districts in financial limbo because they wouldn‚Äôt know how to move forward with creating new budgets. Voters could easily view this approach as a ‚Äúsore loser‚ÄĚ reaction to Evers‚Äô victory over Walker and punish the GOP in the 2020 elections.

Will Evers bring Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos closer together?

For eight years, former Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders in the legislature had total control of state government and, with certain exceptions, could pass any policy they wanted into law without input from minority Democrats. The Evers election significantly changes this dynamic. Now Republicans will have to negotiate with Evers and legislative Democrats to get legislation signed into law.

With the prior GOP control, the only real disagreements were Republican disagreements between themselves. So the question now is whether Majority Leader Fitzgerald and Speaker Vos will work more closely together to leverage their positions on issues where they differ with Gov. Evers? A good example is transportation funding. Evers supports more revenue for transportation needs, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos agrees. Assuming Evers and Vos still agree, where will the Wisconsin Senate stand on this issue? Walker and the state Senate put the brakes on new revenues for transportation over the last few years. How will Fitzgerald and Vos respond to an Evers budget that could include significant new revenues for transportation?

Will the Lame-Duck session do permanent damage to the relationship between Evers and GOP legislative leaders?

In early December, legislative Republicans passed a variety of bills designed to limit the scope of influence and power on certain issues by Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul. Republican leaders Fitzgerald and Vos said they wanted to protect the prerogative of the legislature as an equal branch of state government with the executive branch. Kaul said Republicans found a way to ‚Äúviolate our constitutional checks and balances and separation of powers by people who are desperate to cling to control.‚ÄĚ Evers called the lame-duck session in December an ‚Äúembarrassment for the state of Wisconsin,‚ÄĚ and warned of possible litigation if the legislation was signed into law by Walker. These bills were signed into law, and litigation is now pending.

As we enter the new era of divided government in Wisconsin, it will be interesting to see if the lame-duck session of the legislature has any lasting impact on future negotiations.

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

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