Gov. Tony Evers in his first State of the State address Tuesday outlined an agenda largely at odds with Republican lawmakers, while vowing to "engage civilly" on matters of disagreement.
Evers, who spoke in the Capitol's Assembly chamber to a crowd of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, staff and members of the public, declared he would fulfill one of the more contentious pledges he made during the campaign: ordering Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw from a legal challenge to the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
It's not clear how that would align with a Republican law enacted just before Evers took office that attempted to bar him from doing so.
The proposal drew immediate ire from Republicans, who view such a move as an illegal action if the attorney general goes through with it. The GOP's lame duck legislation passed in December requires legislative approval to withdraw from the suit.
Evers' commitments during the speech to education funding, Medicaid expansion, prioritizing safe drinking water and addressing racial disparities received praise from Democrats.
"It is a new era for Wisconsin," Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, in a statement. "Governor Evers is focusing on restoring our shared Wisconsin values, not his political future."
Evers earlier this month said he would direct Kaul to change Wisconsin's stance in the multi-state lawsuit seeking to undermine Obamacare, but his announcement Tuesday went further. Evers wrote a letter Tuesday to Kaul telling him he withdrew the authority of Wisconsin to participate in the ACA lawsuit.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who criticized Evers' speech for its "partisan rhetoric," said no request has been made to the Legislature to withdraw from the suit.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Evers' request to withdraw was the most concerning part of the speech, adding he hopes to find common ground elsewhere, such as on transportation and education funding.
"If you're going to direct the top cop in Wisconsin to take an illegal action, I think everybody should be concerned," Steineke said.
Kaul declined to explain how he would withdraw from the lawsuit legally, saying only that he would act consistently with the law.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, appeared to suggest Evers does have the authority to withdraw the state from the suit.
"Yeah, he probably can," Fitzgerald said. "It's part of the executive branch."
Shortly after Fitzgerald made those comments, his spokesman walked them back, writing that Fitzgerald believes the Department of Justice needs legislative approval to withdraw from the lawsuit.
Evers in his speech made a forceful case for his plan to expand Medicaid eligibility to nearly 80,000 Wisconsinites under the Obamacare law, which GOP lawmakers have vowed to oppose.
Vos and Fitzgerald have warned they would craft their own budget instead of working off of Evers' if the governor includes Medicaid expansion or proposed tax hikes.
Evers called on Republicans to work with him on the next state budget instead of crafting their own. But after Evers' address, Vos suggested that's unlikely if the new governor forges ahead with Medicaid expansion and any tax hikes.
"If he decides it's going to be a massive tax increase, big spending we can't afford, and certainly expanding government-run health care in a way that we cannot afford it, that's a non-starter for us," Vos said.
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Fitzgerald doubled down on the idea Republicans would craft their own budget, adding he hopes Evers would be part of the discussion.
Ironically, the proposal from Evers that drew the most applause from Republicans during the speech -- a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class -- includes a tax hike to pay for it and thus will be subject to Republican scrutiny.
Evers said he plans to pay for the 10 percent income tax reduction for everyone making up to $100,000 annually and families making up to $150,000 by capping a corporate tax credit he said goes predominantly to people making more than $1 million.
Republicans, meanwhile, want to pay for the tax cut using state reserve funds.
Republicans last week proposed their own version of a middle class tax cut that would reduce the average filer's taxes by $170.
On the state's transportation-funding crunch, which has divided Republican leaders in recent years, Evers said he will appoint a "task force of stakeholders" to craft a "bipartisan policy solution" to be included in his plan for the next state budget.
Evers committed to signing an executive order to designate a Department of Health Services official to address what he described as a "crisis" of lead contamination in private wells.
Evers emphasized the state's achievement gap between white students and students of color, and vowed to enact new measures to address it.
The address gave the newly inaugurated Evers a chance to signal his priorities for the upcoming legislative session, the chief topic of which will be the state's next two-year state budget. The session could be contentious with partisan control of state government split for the first time in more than a decade between Evers, a Democrat, and the GOP-held Legislature.
Evers's remarks underscored areas in which he said Wisconsin lags behind other states. That contrasted with Republican lawmakers' comments leading up to the speech, which suggested the state is now in excellent shape after eight years of GOP rule.
Evers said that while Wisconsin has much to be proud of, "we are also a state among the worst to raise a black family, and we are a state that’s spending more on corrections than our entire UW System."
Evers also said "we trail the country in start-ups and small business creation."
Evers extolled the Wisconsin Idea -- the guiding principle for the University of Wisconsin System, that its mission extends beyond the classroom and into all communities of the state -- which former Gov. Scott Walker tried but failed to alter.
"We are a state forged by the Wisconsin Idea — the notion that education informs our public policy and that knowledge should embrace the communities we're called to serve," Evers said.
Evers' comments about working together on the budget appear to be responding to Fitzgerald.
"I expect legislation arriving on my desk will be passed with broad support and in the spirit of bipartisanship," Evers said. "That means instead of taking up an entirely new budget of its own, I expect the Legislature to take up the budget I crafted by and with the people of our state."
Evers reiterated that his budget will call for returning to the practice of the state providing school districts with two-thirds of the cost to fund education, and will call for a $600 million increase in special education funding. Evers has called for an increase of $1.4 billion to put toward schools of the next two years.
Fitzgerald cast doubt on any significant increases in education spending, questioning where the revenue would come from.