Republicans declare defeat, double down on bitterness after Evers line-item vetoes their budget

Normally in politics, public officials try to put a good face on compromise, taking credit for every legislative achievement they can credibly claim.

But Wisconsin Republicans are not normal. 

Instead of taking a victory lap after Gov. Tony Evers signed the state budget they drafted — having summarily tossed out more than 500 items Evers proposed — Republicans are now pitching a fit about the 51 items Evers line-item vetoed.

Politically, Evers looks like the winner of the state budget battle.

He outsmarted Republican legislative leaders, who went to great lengths to try to limit his ability to make any changes whatsoever to their plan. 

The laughter must have been bouncing off the marble walls in the Capitol’s executive office when Evers’ team discovered that, by deleting a couple of digits, Evers could extend the Legislature’s grudging increase in revenue limits on local school districts of $325 per pupil (which still doesn’t keep pace with inflation) for the next 400 years.

Evers also thwarted GOP efforts to hand out $1.8 million a piece to the 11 richest Wisconsinites through a $20 million tax cut — something legislative budget writers appear to have anticipated, because they wrote that top-tier tax cut in a more veto-friendly fashion than the rest of the cuts. But then Evers went further, eliminating their tax cut for the next highest-paid group.

The right-wing Badger Institute joined the crowd of legislative Republicans who issued outraged statements this week, putting out a press release declaring Evers’ tax-cut veto “devastating.”

“Governor Evers’ action on the budget nearly eliminates critical income tax cuts for middle-class families while simultaneously increasing property taxes on hard-working Wisconsinites for the next four hundred years,.” Joint Finance Committee Chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) huffed. 

Actually the 400- year increase in school revenue caps, while fun, does not obligate districts to raise property taxes and still keeps school spending increases below the rate of inflation.

“Vetoing tax cuts on the top two brackets provides hardly any tax relief for truly middle-class families,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fumed. “His [Evers’] decision also creates another economic disadvantage for Wisconsin, leaving our top bracket higher than most of our neighboring states, including Illinois.” 

Illinois, unlike Wisconsin, has a flat income tax. Every resident, regardless of income, pays the same rate of 4.95%. Wisconsin, thanks in large part to Gov. Evers’ recent budget actions, still has a progressive income tax system, in which the poor pay a smaller share of their income than the rich. Still, Wisconsin’s tax code has become much less progressive over the last 40 years, with rates falling by more than 30% for the top 1% of taxpayers between 1980 and 2020 and by 20% for the middle 20% of taxpayers. Meanwhile, for the bottom 20% of taxpayers, rates actually increased, nearly doubling during the same period.

That’s the backdrop for Republican outrage over Evers’ refusal to cut “middle class” taxes. 

Republicans tossed out Evers’ $1.2 billion in tax breaks worth about $100 for individuals earning less than $100,000 and couples earning less than $150,000. 

Then they attempted to blow $3.5 billion on tax cuts mostly for the rich — single filers making over $280,950 and joint filers making between $374,600 and infinity. GOP legislators are now screaming about the effects of Evers’ veto on people at the low end of the next tier of taxpayers — individuals earning between $25,520 and $280,950 and joint filers making between $34,030 and $374,600. Keep in mind that the average taxpayer in that group, under their plan, got a break worth $33.

Maybe, as one Twitter user observed mildly amid the GOP screaming, Wisconsin Republicans could offer up different tax rates — because people who make $34,030 a year shouldn’t pay the same rate as people who make more than $300,000. But the GOP goal is a flat tax, where everyone pays the same, low rate. Then, the wealthy will have more money to pay for private schools and mansions in gated communities, and the state won’t be able to afford public schools or decent infrastructure or a great university system. 

Speaking of that great university system, another thing that really made Republicans mad was Evers’ cancellation of the language in their budget specifically forbidding the university from paying for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and staff. 

As Baylor Spears reported, Evers called Republicans’ language a shortsighted effort to “prolong a decades-long war on higher education” and said their attacks on DEI were “the wrong interpretation” of what diversity programs are meant to accomplish. 

“The fact of the matter is… any large company in the state of Wisconsin has DEI efforts, so that they can get enough people to do the work for them and suddenly we’re going to say, this is a divisive thing?” Evers said. “Give me a break.”

Vos, who has said he is “embarrassed” to be a graduate of a UW System school because of diversity efforts, and who has promised to wipe out scholarships for minority students when the Legislature begins its next session in the fall, resorted to all caps in his sputtering response to Evers’ veto: “Republicans are not waging a war AGAINST higher education. We are waging a war FOR higher education by signaling that well-balanced instruction and merit-based advancement should be the foundation of earning a degree.”

Signaling, or political posturing, is what it’s all about. The UW System will still have to go to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to ask for the restoration of the $32 million that was cut to defund diversity. And, of course, Republicans are promising to withhold the money as long as the university continues to care about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Republicans were never serious about passing a budget that was good for Wisconsin, or even about making sense. Their only aims are cutting taxes and throwing red meat to their base. 

Evers’ response was his veto message: “While Republicans in the Legislature might be perfectly comfortable abdicating the duty we share, I am not,” he wrote, explaining why he signed the budget despite the pleading for a complete veto from public interest groups appalled by the hash the Republicans made of the spending plan.

He wouldn’t veto the budget because he didn’t think Republican legislators could be trusted to come up with something better, and because it contains some money for schools, some money for combatting PFAS, a bipartisan investment in building more housing, and other minor improvements that don’t come close to matching the historic opportunity afforded by the surplus, but are better than nothing.

Then there’s Evers’ charge to the Legislature to take the “second chance” he’s given them to come back in the fall and spend some of the billions left over from the surplus, now that he’s stopped them from blowing it all on tax cuts, and fund some important priorities, like the Office of School Safety that warns parents when a kid is threatening to bring a gun to class, for God’s sake.

The Republicans seem unlikely to take up that challenge. Instead, Vos is claiming Evers “lied” in budget negotiations and threatening to take him to court, pretending that the line-item veto has never been used like this before, even though Republican Gov. Scott Walker used it 99 times to cut $16.5 million out of his last budget before Evers took office.

Politically, Evers is having the last laugh on the budget. But on substance, it’s still a Republican product. The Wisconsin Public Education Network gives it a failing grade, pointing out that 39% of schools will end up with less state aid next year than this year and decrying “massive, permanent giveaways to private voucher schools and independent charters.”  The increase for public schools doesn’t begin to make up for years of funding cuts. Districts statewide are left with crisis-level budget decisions, belt-tightening and school closures, WPEN warns.

“Instead of fixing (eliminating) revenue limits, we codified them for 400 years,” the WPEN’s Jenni Hofschulte laments.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards has called for eliminating revenue caps, since the state has given up on its promise to cover two-thirds of school funding and the limits force them to go to referendum again and again just to stay afloat (another issue Evers attempted to rectify and Republicans struck out of his budget plan). 

As Evers himself concedes, his clever partial vetoes didn’t restore funding for a lot of critical needs. The budget remains “imperfect,” as he put it. 

But overall the Republicans look like the biggest losers. 

That’s their choice. Stoking outrage, grievance and division has become the comfortable corner they always go to. But it’s also because they underestimated Evers. 

Instead of engaging in culture wars, Evers is talking about building a state that works for everyone. He won statewide election decisively on that message. And the 500 items the Republicans tossed out of his forward-looking budget plan were much more in tune with the public than what the GOP came up with. In the long run, and especially in a post-gerrymandered Wisconsin, Evers’ vision is a lot more appealing than what the Republicans are selling. And that’s what makes them the maddest.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F07%2F07%2Frepublicans-declare-defeat-double-down-on-bitterness-after-evers-line-item-vetoes-their-budget%2F by Ruth Conniff

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