Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges the gallery during a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers at the Governor's State of the State speech, Jan. 22, 2020 (Photo © Andy Manis)
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges the gallery during a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers at the Governor's State of the State speech, Jan. 22, 2020 (Photo © Andy Manis)

‘State of State’ also includes a showdown over gerrymandering

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address Wednesday evening was not lacking for new policy initiatives, despite the short calendar the Legislative has given itself.

The state’s 46th governor stood before the Republican-controlled Legislature, announcing plans to sign an executive order to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission, a task force on student loan debt and a Blue Ribbon Task Force on Rural Prosperity. 

The biggest news to the GOP lawmakers, though, was his intention to call a special session as soon as next week to address hardships in the state’s farming community.

The get-to-work tone of the speech runs counter to legislative leaders who have made it clear it wants this session wrapped up by the end of February. 

“There is no rest for elected folks, and we’ve got a lot to get done before anyone takes a vacation,” Evers said. 

The attention Evers is paying to the plight of the state’s small dairy farmers was clear, with his unveiling of a three-pronged plan to address the decline of small dairy farms and the corresponding increase in depression and suicide among farmers.

“In Wisconsin we are known as America’s Dairyland. It’s on our license plates. And for good reason,” Evers said. 

In 2018, Wisconsin led the nation in cheese production and produced 14 percent of the nation’s milk. That production of milk and cheese contributes $43.4 billion to the state’s economy and produces 79,000 jobs. 

Evers added that despite the state’s tradition of dairy farming, the tradition “has been challenged.” Between 2011 and 2018, Wisconsin lost about one-third of its dairy farms and led the nation in farm bankruptcies. 

“We’ve heard from people who have said there is no place for small farms anymore, that they ought to go big or bust,” said Evers, in reference to comments made by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a trip to Wisconsin in October. “Well, they are wrong. They don’t know Wisconsin. In this state no one carries the burden alone.”

To that end, Evers is calling a special session of the legislature to discuss legislation that will invest in farmers, agricultural business and rural communities. 

“Here is the bottom line, folks. We are losing more than two dairy farms a day. And for each day we delay, the challenges will get harder and harder,” Evers said. 

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said following Evers’ speech that he is in favor of supporting the agriculture industry and he is open to hear more on the bills Evers is proposing. 

“We will need to see the bills he introduces, but I am not opposed to it,” Fitzgerald said. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was not as agreeable to the idea of a special session. 

“Governor Evers is finally acknowledging the needs of rural Wisconsin,” said Vos in a statement. “He has basically ignored our rural areas his entire term up to this point with an agenda focused on Madison and Milwaukee.”

For a majority of the roughly 30-minute speech, responses from the Legislature were divided along party lines, with the Democratic side of the room applauding his initiatives and the other side remaining silent. This was true for the dairy policies as well as the news to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw “The People’s Maps.” 

Evers said the commission will consist of state residents, not elected officials, lobbyists or high-paid consultants. The commission will travel the state, visiting every congressional district and then drawing up maps for the legislature to approve next year. 

The proposal is similar to a bill introduced by Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, earlier this year. A change to how the state draws its voting maps would require a constitutional amendment. Both Vos and Fitzgerald, in comments with reporters after the speech, were sharply critical of the governor’s plan.

To date, 50 of the state’s 72 counties, representing 78 percent of the population, have approved non-binding resolutions supporting fair maps, Evers said. 

Besides nonpartisan redistricting maps and investing in rural communities, Evers said he would like the legislature to address the health crisis attached to youth vaping, cap the cost of insulin at $100 a month, close the dark store loophole, and get highly toxic chemicals known as PFAS of of the state’s water.

He also announced an upcoming executive order to create a task force on student loan debt in Wisconsin, noting the impact it is having on young families who put off buying a car, starting a family or saving for retirement.

The bill to close what is referred to as the dark store loophole refers to an increasingly common tactic being used by big-box retailers to challenge municipal assessments. The retailers argue their properties should be valued based only on the value of the buildings that house them — no different than a vacant, or “dark,” store — and not their full business use. 

The result is higher property taxes for homeowners. From 2014-17, more than 100 Wisconsin businesses filed lawsuits against cities across the state by retailers including Walgreens, CVSm Wal-Mart and Menards, according to an article by Up North News. 

The Legislature did pass a bill earlier this week that prohibits the use of firefighter foam that contains PFAS. It is awaiting the governor’s signature. The more extensive CLEAR Act, which would allow the state to identify the extent of PFAS-related contamination across the state, is supported by Democrats but has not been given a hearing by the GOP-controlled Legislature. So far, 31 contamination sites have been identified in the state. 

Prior to the State of the State, top Assembly Republicans said true bipartisanship was needed between the executive and legislative branches. They described relationships as tense during the Evers first year in office. 

“We haven’t been sitting around the last 13 months waiting for a homework assignment to get done,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, in reference to a letter Evers sent to the top two leaders of both parties in both houses Jan. 9. Republicans took issue with the idea of being given homework. 

Vos said it is important to remind people that the state is in a great position, and that, he claims, is due to Republican leadership over the past eight years. 

“True bipartisanship requires people sitting down and discussing the issues,” Vos said. “Bipartisanship requires actual compromise and not just empty rhetoric.”