A long road to normal: Governor Tony Evers reflects on the turbulent past year and what 2021 could bring
Governor Tony Evers began 2020 talking about how to spend a budget surplus and preparing for the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee.
By the end of the year, the first-term governor had overseen a sweeping government response to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, mobilized the National Guard following destructive protests in Madison and Kenosha, and fought repeated Republican lawsuits seeking to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin.
As 2021 begins, Evers will have to negotiate a new budget with Republican lawmakers, and — if he decides to seek a second term — lay the foundation for his reelection campaign. In a year-end interview, Evers shared his 2020 takeaways and offered a glimpse into what he’s expecting in the year-ahead.
Responding To The COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a bright light on Wisconsin state government, from its powers to address a public health emergency to its deep divisions.
“It’s consumed everybody,” Evers said.
In mid-March, Evers began regularly joining state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm to give video updates on the pandemic. Evers declared his first public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. After that, things moved fast.
On March 13, his administration ordered schools closed statewide. On March 16, Evers’ DHS ordered a ban on gatherings of 50 or more. Just a day later, the governor’s administration banned gatherings of 10 or more and ordered all bars and restaurants to serve take-out only.
On March 24, the Evers administration issued its first “Safer at Home” declaration, a month-long order that closed a wide variety of businesses where the risk of transmission of the coronavirus was thought to be higher. The governor’s administration extended that order a month later.
“Just thinking back on it, I think I am really proud of the way our administration, the National Guard and Wisconsinites themselves really stepped up to meet me,” Evers said.
The state Supreme Court struck down “Safer at Home” on May 13, ruling that the Evers administration exceeded its authority by issuing the order unilaterally instead of going through the Legislature. Evers and GOP leaders never agreed on a replacement for “Safer at Home.”
Evers issued another order on July 30 mandating face masks at indoor public places. He reissued that order twice, and while it could still be overturned by the state Supreme Court, the mandate still stands.
“I think we actually turned that around a little bit,” Evers said. “I think there’s more people wearing a mask now than ever before. I think there’s more people kind of camping out at home more often than they have been before. And we’re in a position now where we can begin to vaccinate people and kind of end this mess.”
In other ways, the pandemic showed the limitations of state government. As unemployment spiked to double-digits this spring and remained high throughout much of the year, the state’s unemployment insurance system failed to keep up. An audit released in September found that 38.3 million of the 41.1 million phone calls placed to the Department of Workforce Development’s call centers from March 15 through June 30 were either blocked or received busy signals. Just a half percent of all calls were ever answered.
Republican lawmakers blamed the Evers administration for the delays. Evers blamed an outdated unemployment insurance system that Republicans never fixed despite warnings during Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.
“Certainly, when we have an ancient unemployment compensation system that should have been replace years ago, we have four times the number of people that ever in recent time asked for unemployment insurance, it didn’t work, it didn’t help them, and it didn’t help the people that are working at the Department of Workforce Development,” Evers said.
“We’re finally getting a handle on that,” Evers continued. “But that was just concerning. But I’m not quite sure what we could have done other than what we did.”
While thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccines have now been distributed in Wisconsin, Evers said it will take a while for life to get back to the way it was.
“It’s going to take us a long time to get back to normal,” Evers said. “My crystal ball is a pretty simple one. I hope to get to a Brewers game sometime this summer, even if it’s in August, in person. And so that gives you an idea that people are still going to have to stay at home, wear a mask do social distancing things and … get vaccinated when your time is up. But, you know, the end is in sight.”
Police Laws And Race Relations
In Wisconsin, as in states around the country, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody sparked prolonged protests. Most were peaceful, but some turned destructive. In Madison, protesters smashed police cars and downtown storefronts on May 30. On June 23, protesters toppled two statues outside of the Wisconsin state Capitol.
The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha on Aug. 23 led to new protests as demonstrators burned several of the city’s downtown buildings. On August 25, two protesters were killed and a third was injured in a clash with 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a resident of Antioch, Illinois.
Evers mobilized the National Guard to respond to the demonstrations in both Madison and Kenosha. He also called a special session for a package of police reform bills, but the Legislature declined to take them up. Assembly lawmakers have since convened a study committee on race relations. Evers said he expects they will come to the same conclusions he did.
“I thought it’s unfortunate that we didn’t have a special session,” Evers said. “But I also believe that if the recommendations that he gets out of that committee will be similar to what we talked about, we’ll get something done. Absolutely.”
Part of what made Evers’ 2018 victory over Walker so significant for Democrats is that it will give him the power to veto any redistricting plans passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. It was a different situation 10 years ago when Walker signed a Republican-drawn redistricting plan into law, helping the GOP maintain and build its majorities over the course of the decade.
While the next round of map-drawing can’t officially start until the release of new census data next year, in some ways, the process has already begun.
In January, Evers announced the formation of a “People’s Maps Commission” tasked with holding hearings and drawing maps that are “free of partisan bias and partisan advantage.” GOP leaders have dismissed the move as an effort to rev up the Democratic base.
Quietly, another process is moving forward that could be hugely consequential for the next round of redistricting. In June, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider a rule that would require redistricting lawsuits to start there. Justices are scheduled to consider the rule petition in January. Evers said he thinks it was a bad idea.
“I mean, think about it,” Evers said. “They went to court not to change a law or challenge the law. They want to change internal rules of the Supreme Court so that that happens. I think that’s shaky. That’s bad public policy. Period.”
The last round of redistricting was challenged multiple times in federal court. Conservatives hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court grew more conservative during the years of the Trump administration. Still, Evers promises that the next maps will be more competitive than the last ones.
“Regardless of where this ends up, whether it’s federal courts, state court or actually they want to negotiate around this, which I don’t think they do, we will have more competitive races in Wisconsin,” Evers said. “And that is very important.”
The Next Budget
Beyond a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a once-in-a-decade redistricting process, Evers will also have to put together a budget next year. The state’s financial situation likely won’t be as bad as initially feared after COVID-19 hit the U.S., but early projections suggest revenue will fall well short of expected spending.
That was especially true when looking at the amount of funding state agencies are requesting. For example, the Department of Public Instruction is asking for a nearly $1.5 billion increase in state spending while the University of Wisconsin System is asking for an increase of about $95 million.
“I believe that we will be investing in both those arenas,” Evers said. “It may not be where their request was.”
In Evers’ first budget, he proposed expanding Medicaid in order to increase federal funding to state government, a move Republican lawmakers quickly rejected. Evers contends the debate is different this time around with more investment needed in Wisconsin’s public health system, which has been stretched by COVID-19.
“We need to have some investments in that, and one of the best ways to invest in it is expanding Medicaid,” Evers said. “That discussion will be a little different this time, too, in that … Medicaid expansion brings money to the state and our revenue streams will not be as strong as they have been in the past.”
When it comes to transportation funding, Evers said his focus will be on local roads and mass transit. While he wouldn’t rule out a tax or fee increase to pay for roads, he wouldn’t promise it either.
“It certainly is a different place now than it was a year or two years ago when we did our budget,” Evers said.
The Aftermath Of The 2020 Election
While he wasn’t on the ballot, Evers was also an indirect player in Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election. As governor, Evers certified the state’s election results, a formality that’s given little attention in most elections, but one that made him the subject of repeated lawsuits after the 2020 campaign.
President Donald Trump and his allies filed three lawsuits in state court, all of which were denied by the state Supreme Court on 4-3 votes. Trump and his allies also went winless in federal court.
Trump continues to insist without evidence that he won the election, and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson recently held a hearing where he amplified many of the same theories that were rejected by courts. Evers said he hopes bygones can be bygones in 2021, although he realizes a significant portion of Trump’s base might never accept the election results.
“Do I think that this is an anomaly? God, I hope so,” Evers said. “We as a country cannot go through another situation like this.”
Evers said he was especially disappointed that Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany signed on to a brief in support of a Texas lawsuit seeking to invalidate Wisconsin’s election.
“I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. Yes, there’s hard feelings,” Evers said. “I found that jaw dropping. I can’t believe that he would ever do that again.”
Since the interview with Evers, two Republican state lawmakers, Reps. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz and David Seteffen, R-Green Bay, signed on to another federal lawsuit seeking to overturn President-elect Biden’s victory.
Evers now has his own reelection to consider for 2022, with several Republicans having emerged as potential challengers. They include former Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, former U.S. Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson and Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow. Johnson has also not ruled out running for governor.
Evers said he was still weighing his options.
“Everyone is asking,” Evers said. “I have not decided. I still love my job and I’ll make a decision on that later on.”
Originally published on Wisconsin Public Radio as In A Year-End Interview, Governor Reflects On The Pandemic, Protests And Election