Police reform, tax cuts, & running for re-election: A one-on-one with Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers

MADISON, Wis.– It’s been a marathon week for Tony Evers: less than 72 hours after announcing his re-election bid, the Governor learned of the state’s ‘unprecedented’ $2.6 billion surplus.

News 3 Now got our first chance to talk with Evers today. Here is our full conversation:

News 3 Now reporter Christina Lorey: We have about ten minutes, so let’s get right to it: You obviously don’t have a choice, but who would you like to face next November?

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers: You’re right. I don’t have control over that. And I really haven’t been paying much attention to who’s considering running, who’s running, and so on. It makes no difference. I feel very confident our record’s a good one and we can persevere. Who I run against is of less importance at this point in time.

Lorey: You mentioned your record, so let’s talk about that. You won the last election by less than 30,000 votes. Wisconsin seemingly hasn’t gotten any less polarized over the last two-and-a-half years. Can you give voters who might not have cast a ballot in the last election an example of one way you’ve reached across the aisle and potentially earned their vote this time around?

Evers: Actually, during our last budget, we did reach some agreements. I set a high bar for the legislature, and we ended up with a lot more resources for our public schools. We had the largest increase in broadband in the state’s history. We had a good budget as it relates to our roads, our bridges, and our infrastructure. And all those things happened because of the work that we did, in particular, the work my staff did with the legislature. We also set a bar. With the budget, it’s all about setting a bar that we all strive to get to. Last time around, it worked in a good way for a lot of people in the state of Wisconsin.

Lorey: Do you think leaders like Speaker Vos would say the same thing about you? What has your working relationship been like? Have there been any surprising areas of compromise?

Evers: No, I don’t think he’ll agree with me at all. That’s the nature of it. Giving someone props from the other side isn’t necessarily a good way to ingratiate yourself with your own party. I guess he’s say there aren’t any times we agreed. That being said, all that stuff frankly doesn’t matter to me. My goal is to make sure we do the best we can for the citizens of Wisconsin. I spend a lot of time going across the state listening to people, and that’s probably the most important part of my job. A lot of people focus on what happens inside the Capitol. Frankly, that’s a bubble. I know all legislators need to get outside that bubble. That’s where the action is. It is not in the legislature.

Lorey: So what are you hearing from them? What are you hearing when you go outside that bubble? What do people want that you’d take into a second term and how would it be different than your first?

Evers: Certainly I can tell you that things that Republicans have opposed in the past such as Medicaid expansion, such as fair maps, things that we’ve had great difficulty accomplishing. I hear it. But I also see it in the polling, like the Marquette poll. People in Wisconsin are value-based people. They care about education. They care about making sure our infrastructure is good: our roads, our bridges, our broadband. They’re really excited about having the best healthcare possible. Those things span both parties and Independents. I’ll continue to focus on those and fight for those. I think there are times when Republicans aren’t necessarily in sync with folks at home. What Republican mom and dad doesn’t want schools to be good for their kids? It’s irrational to think that’s a Democrat issue. It’s not. It’s a Democrat and Republican issue.

Lorey: Back to what’s happening right now at the Capitol: the good news this week was the newly-projected, unprecedented windfall of a $4.4 billion surplus for the state. Republicans want to use some of that money to fund tax cuts. Is that something you would support? If not, what part would you use your line-item veto power to change?

Evers: First of all, it’s great news that we have $4 billion more than expected. That happened because of our work during the pandemic. They were gone for 300 days. We did a great job making sure people had the equipment they needed, the testing, the contact tracing, and getting shots in arms. And we’ve led the nation in a lot of those issues. In addition, we’ve provided resources for small businesses to make sure we’re helping them hang in there. There’s a reason why our unemployment rate is almost as good as it was pre-pandemic. And it was our response to that. I have to tell you that, right now, with the $4 billion, we need to fix the budget that they’re working on. Clearly, as everyone knows including the leaders of the Joint Finance Committee, the federal money that is supposed to be sent to our schools to recover from the pandemic is going to be held-up because there’s not enough effort on our part to put state money towards schools. That needs to be fixed first. I mean, good Lord. First of all, we want good schools. Second of all, we don’t need to punish schools by saying, “Well, we’re not going to give you enough money to at least have this federal money come in and reimburse you for the costs incurred during the pandemic.” Yes, I know they’re going to talk about tax cuts. But just as a reminder, in the first year of the biennium, I created several billion dollars in tax cuts. In addition, during the pandemic, we put in place $700 million worth of tax cuts. It’s not that we’ve been in a tax cut-free environment. We’ve been doing it all along. I fully expect to have conversations about their plans. In the beginning, we need to fix the budget they’re working on because it’s not in good shape.

Lorey: I’ve done a lot of stories with our Black community here in the Madison area and there are many calls for substantial police reform. Does that have a path in an Evers second term, or even the continuation of your current first term?

Evers: I’ve watched some of your segments, and I appreciate your good work on that. Yes, we worked with the Black caucus originally after the uprising and civil disturbance in Kenosha that dealt with this issue directly. Obviously, that didn’t work because we had a special session that never happened, unfortunately. Now there’s a multitude of bills and some of them are stronger than others. There are going to be more that are released in the next few days, so there is going to be a plethora of things to choose from. What my concern is, is that some of the bills that reach my desk don’t go far enough. They’re a first step. I will gauge whether a first step is okay, but we have to have some path to the next step to have the transparency and accountability that are needed. It’s going to be a difficult decision. The good news is that there are all sorts of good ideas out there right now from the task force, individual legislators, and input from the public.

Lorey: Another big thing we’re hearing from our local community is that a lot of business owners are struggling. Here in Madison, it seems like the majority of them are starting to bounce back, but they’re running into a hiring crisis. I know your critics on the other side say that’s because so many people are taking advantage of unemployment benefits. Is there any truth to that? And what can you do to help both workers and business owners turn things around?

Evers: First of all, I have to set something straight: the people that work at the Department of Workforce Development and the UI system follow the claimants quite regularly. And if they’re not looking for jobs, they get bounced off the system. Obviously, they have appeal rights. But all that takes time. At the end of the day, no one has provided data to me that suggests there are all these people out there that are not entering the workforce when they could. Right now, our unemployment rate is similar to what it was pre-pandemic. I don’t remember anyone pre-pandemic saying.” We have to kick these people off unemployment.” The data isn’t there. We also have to look at this in a holistic way. We had a shortage of people before the pandemic, too. What we need to do is look at this long-term. Quality of life is important in Wisconsin. If we want to bring people to this state to work and to live and to enjoy working in Wisconsin, that’s part of the problem: we just don’t have enough people. The number of jobs far outstrip the number of people. We need a long-term solution around affordable housing, around transportation, around transit. If we don’t start looking at things holistically and connecting the dots, we’re going to be talking about this again next year at this time, that I should be kicking people off unemployment compensation. We need a more thorough look at this.

Lorey: Your job isn’t the only one on the ballot next November. We also have a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs. Mandela Barnes’ name is floating around as a possibility for that position. I don’t expect that you’ll break any news for him, but as someone who’s worked closely with him, why is or isn’t he qualified for that job?

Evers: Oh, I won’t go there. Mandela’s done a great job for us, for me, for the state of Wisconsin. I’d love to see him stay. I respect him, his decision-making process, and we’ll just have to wait and see.

Lorey: I’ll respect your time. We’re past our ten minutes. But before you go, I know you’re not shy and have used your executive authority before. At what point will you intervene in the current Packers crisis and just make Aaron Rodgers report to training camp?

Evers: That is an outstanding question. I do believe it will be resolved without gubernatorial intervention. Clearly, Rodgers is a superstar that has done wonderful things for the Packers and the NFL. I think, at the end of the day, if everybody just takes a deep breath, we haven’t even hit July yet, he’ll be back with the Packers. They will be able to figure that out. That was a great question. I don’t see an executive order about this, but I’m invested like any other Packer fan is, and I’ll remain invested in that as a private citizen.

Lorey: That’s something we can all agree on, Democrat or Republican.

Evers: That’s right. Amen.