MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday in his annual State of the State address that he will seek hundreds of millions of dollars for mental health services for Wisconsinites, particularly for children who have spent the last three years navigating the coronavirus pandemic — declaring 2023 “the year of mental health.”
In a primetime televised speech, Evers pledged to work with Republican lawmakers to provide more tax relief and increased funding for local government services, and called for billions in new funding for classrooms and programs aimed at recruiting more teachers.
“We also know that if we want to get our kids caught up and achieving at their highest potential, then we need to reduce and keep class sizes small. Schools need resources to retain experienced educators and recruit new, talented folks to join our classrooms,” Evers said Tuesday in a speech delivered inside the Assembly chamber of the Wisconsin State Capitol. “We also have work to do to get our kids caught up from the past few years. We all want to improve outcomes and ensure our kids are prepared for success. And I believe that together we will.”
Republican legislative leaders said the proposals unveiled Tuesday by the Democratic governor — totaling more than $1 billion in new spending — were all but certain to be too expensive to support and pledged to throw out his upcoming two-year state budget proposal and start from scratch as they have done in the past.
“Boy, he sure is trying to spend a lot of money,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said after Evers’ speech. “We’ll see in a month what his budget all entails, but I was trying to add up the numbers going along, and he’s trying to spend a lot of the hard-earned taxpayer money of Wisconsin.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in the upcoming state budget-writing process, Republicans won’t “grow the size of government beyond where we already are.”
“Pretty much everything he proposed today was a government expansion. So I would assume that most of those are DOA,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters.
“We already have a government that’s too big and too expensive. In Wisconsin, I want to reduce the size of that so people can help deal with the inflationary costs brought on by the pandemic and the response to it. But if he has good ideas, I’m happy to listen.”
Evers delivered his first statewide address since being reelected in November on a platform of increasing funding for public schools, cutting taxes for middle-class filers, preserving the state’s system of elections, restoring abortion access and providing more state money for local governments.
Evers, a former public school educator, focused his speech on measures he would seek to increase spending on classrooms and programs to address mental health, proposing to spend $500 million more overall for mental health and behavioral services, including $270 million dedicated to expand services in schools.
“The state of mental health in Wisconsin is a quiet, burgeoning crisis that I believe will have catastrophic consequences for generations if we don’t treat it with the urgency it requires,” Evers said.
For the fifth time as governor and after four times as state superintendent of schools, Evers also is proposing to increase funding for public schools by historic amounts, this time by $2 billion — calling on Republicans who control the state Legislature to dedicate to schools more than a quarter of a nearly $7 billion projected budget surplus in an effort to stem an increasing number of approved property tax referendums.
“For years, communities have raised their own property taxes to keep their local schools afloat. And while some school districts have successfully passed referenda to help keep the school lights on, many have tried and failed. This system means drastic differences in outcomes for our kids — creating winners and losers, haves and have-nots. “Doing what’s best for our kids has always been what’s best for our state. And, today, we can afford to do more,” Evers said.
Republican lawmakers are proposing instead to use the state’s projected budget surplus to deliver massive income tax cuts and to increase funding for private school voucher programs as their budget priorities.
Vos said ahead of Evers’ address that the $2 billion increase Evers is seeking for schools is “way too high” for Republicans to support but LeMahieu and Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August said it’s too early to say what ballpark of funding increase GOP lawmakers could support.
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Evers proposes $20 million to lift student reading skills
Evers said Tuesday he would seek another $20 million toward improving Wisconsin students’ reading skills. In the most-recent round of statewide standardized testing, fewer than half of students in grades three through eight were rated as proficient in math and reading.
In 2022, Milwaukee Public Schools students’ dropped by 38% in math and 24% in reading over 2019 scores. In total, about 10% of Milwaukee students scored as proficient or higher in math, and about 14% in language arts. Evers said he would propose “over $20 million into recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers and student teachers, including $10 million for our local, homegrown educators, to bolster our educator pipeline and ensure it’s sustainable for the future.”
Evers proposes devoting 20% of state sales tax to shore up local governments
Evers previously announced plans to include an 8% increase in state payments to local governments over the biennium and another $10 million for local EMS, police, and fire costs to local municipalities.
On Tuesday, he went further, saying he wants to send a total of up to 20% of the state’s sales tax revenue back to local communities for the payments known as shared revenue — a version of an idea previously floated by Republican legislative leaders who suggested they might use 1% of sales tax revenue for shared revenue payments.
Shared revenue is tax dollars the state provides to cities, villages, towns and counties to help pay for local expenses. The amount has not been increased in years.
“This commitment will ensure our communities will see growth in shared revenue in the future after years of state investment not keeping up with our communities’ needs,” Evers said.
State Rep. Mark Born, co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, said using a portion of the state sales tax is something GOP members of the Legislature have been talking about for months with local governments.
“The only thing the governor has been talking about prior to tonight is that he was opposed to using sales tax,” Born said. “So we’re glad that he’s open to what we have been working on. We think it’s a good path forward with local governments.”
Evers pledges action PFAS water contamination
Evers on Tuesday renewed his pledge to address water contamination, and implored the Legislature to take action to provide resources to communities who no longer have safe drinking water due to high levels of “forever chemicals.”
Evers is now pledging more than $100 million to address water contamination, nearly four years after he declared 2019 the “Year of Clean Water.” The funding will allow the state to take a multi-faceted approach in solving the PFAS issue, allowing the state to expand testing and monitoring, make more resources available to impacted communities and to raise awareness of the dangers PFAS pose to the health of communities.
More:‘This is not a partisan issue’: Lawmakers consider using historic state budget surplus to address ‘forever chemicals’
Those efforts would be in addition to actions that have moved forward, such as a Department of Justice lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers, funding for private well replacements for contamination, and funding to collect and dispose of firefighting foam containing the chemicals.
In the previous budget, Evers proposed similar measures but Republicans who control the Legislature removed the items in the final spending plan.
“Partisan politics cannot keep getting in the way of this work while Wisconsinites worry about the water coming from their tap,” he said.
More:‘Are we poisoning ourselves?’: ‘Forever chemical’ levels are so high in a Northwoods town that filtration might not work
The second-term governor touted the state’s economic condition, noting a record budget surplus and a AAA bond credit rating.
Evers said he would seek to create a $100 million workforce innovation grant program to respond to state’s workforce challenges, and $50 million to address staffing shortages in healthcare fields.
He praised his administration’s efforts to help local economies survive the stressors of the coronavirus pandemic, which kept many customers away for at least the first year of the health emergency and has continued to create staffing shortages for a number of industries. Evers said the grant program has helped more than 8,500 businesses expand or move into vacant storefronts.
Evers also said he wants to double the number of homes and businesses in Wisconsin receiving new or improved broadband internet access over the number during his first term: 387,000.
Laura Schulte of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.