Can Wisconsin Gov. Evers and GOP Legislature work together?

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Can newly reelected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the even-more Republican Wisconsin Legislature work together better over the next two years than the previous four?

That’s the $5 billion question.

That's where the state's projected budget surplus stands, a massive number that will hang over Evers and lawmakers as they look ahead to what they want to do with that money.

“Having this good situation could be, and should be, an opportunity to bring everyone together," said Jason Stein, research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum. "But it certainly could also be an opportunity to fight and disagree over how to use the money.”

Both sides have staked out priorities, not all of which conflict, but neither faction has shown much of an ability to work together, with Evers vetoing more than 120 bills the past four years and rarely talking with Republican leaders.

Also on the horizon: Fights over the state's 173-year-old near-total abortion ban, election law changes, marijuana legalization, parole policies and what to do about PFAS pollution.

Republican lawmakers were meeting privately Thursday to elect their leaders who will work, or not, with Evers over the next two years. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, both of whom are asking their colleagues to reelect them, would be presiding over larger Republican majorities that are collectively just shy of a two-thirds supermajority.

Evers has given a fairly detailed preview of what his priorities will be.

Evers in August proposed spending $600 million of the surplus on tax cuts, including cutting income taxes for the middle class by 10%. Republicans summarily rejected the idea as a campaign ploy, even though they passed a middle class income tax cut in the last budget and long supported lowering taxes.

Evers has also promised to increase funding for local governments, to be used in part for hiring more police and bolstering public safety, pushing gun safety laws, spending money on repairing roads, increasing funding for the University of Wisconsin System and legalizing marijuana.

His top priority, Evers said at a stop Wednesday at a Madison middle school, will be on increasing funding for public schools. Evers spent his career in public education, including serving 10 years as state superintendent, before being elected governor.

All of those ideas have to win approval from the Legislature, which summarily rejected most of what Evers wanted in his first term, and would likely do the same to much of what he's already put forward. On marijuana, for example, some Republicans have been open to a limited legalization for medical use, but there has been little appetite for recreational use.

“I’m not all that foolish. I understand there’s a whole bunch of Republicans in the Legislature and we need to work with them, and we’ll do the best we can,” Evers said. “But obviously we will not do things that are simply against our core feelings.”

A case in point: abortion.

Evers supports a lawsuit filed by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul seeking to overturn the state's abortion ban. Republicans, who support banning abortion, have shown little willingness to soften the law. Evers also said during the campaign he would veto any bill granting exceptions because he wants to see the entire ban overturned.

“I don’t see a way to solve this legislatively,” Evers said Wednesday, voicing confidence in the chances of winning the lawsuit.

Senate Republicans have also stymied Evers on appointments, refusing to confirm the governor’s picks and thereby allowing Republican appointees to remain in their positions. Evers called on LeMahieu to take action to allow his picks to take over.

Evers pointed to his 3-point reelection win — three times his victory margin in 2018 — as a sign that Wisconsin residents back his agenda.

“At some point in time, the will of the people will become the law of the land, and I hope that happens within the next four years,” Evers said.

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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.

Scott Bauer And Harm Venhuizen, The Associated Press