It’s music to the ears of a broad swath of Wisconsin voters that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Gov. Tony Evers, Republican and Democratic leaders of our state, are saying they are ready to reach pragmatic compromises in the New Year.
After his decisive, but hardly a mandated victory over Republican businessman Tim Michels, Evers commented in an interview, “We are a purple state and we have to work with Republicans to get things done.”
Evers beat Michels by 3½ points, which is better than the thin margin by which he defeated Gov. Scott Walker four years earlier, but it is not a resounding victory for his political view of the state of our state. The campaign between Michels and Evers was policy light, and Republican candidates had little compelling substance to shine a light forward on policy in 2023.
A big difference this year is the overriding existence of a $6.8 billion surplus in the state coffers. By its very existence, GOP arguments for belt tightening and cost cuts ring hollow. The Republican refrain for years has been cost cuts and tax reductions as if there were no other strategic issues facing Wisconsin. With cost cuts a non-issue, tax cuts will be issue number one for the Republicans.
Evers is good to go with tax cuts as long as the top bracket for well-off Wisconsinites is not part of the deal. Lower income citizens pay little or no taxes, so the expected compromise will be to lower tax rates for the middle brackets.
That was the basis for a rare bipartisan compromise between Evers and Republican legislative leaders in 2021. They surprisingly agreed to a $2.4 billion tax reduction for the middle class.
Note that the combined surpluses over two biennia total a whopping $9 billion.
Vos said earlier that he expects the 2023 tax cuts to be at least as high as in 2021. Even if the governor and speaker agree to add $1 billion to the 2021 reduction, for total of $3.4 billion, that still leaves another $3.4 billion for other strategic priorities for Wisconsin. There are many:
- K-12 Dollars — Evers will want more money for K-12 education as part of any deal, but he may concede more dollars for growing numbers of school choice vouchers at the K-12 level to get to compromise.
- Public safety — In the face of growing violent crime in our major cities, which was the preeminent issue for Michels and other Republicans, Evers has in effect supported more cops by proposing higher shared revenues for municipal governance. They should be able to find consensus for beefing up police forces and social workers to tackle criminality (220 murders in Milwaukee by year end) and out-of-control mental disorders.
- Health Costs — Behind inflation, which is strictly a federal issue, the biggest economic attack on citizen prosperity is out-of-control health costs. Neither party has addressed this issue. Neither party has called for anti-trust action against the anti-competitive consolidations in the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC). There is room for consensus on trust-busting even in the face of reality that health care providers and insurers are major donors to political candidates.
- The Great Lakes need tender, loving care. A modest amount of state funding would go a long way in establishing the UW Fresh Water Collaborative that attempts to pull together our best fresh water university researchers to address nagging issues facing our greatest natural resource – one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. How about for starters $10 million in state money to fund a new research vessel at UWM to match $10 million in private donations? That’s chump change compared to the size of the surplus.
- UW Challenges –The University of Wisconsin System is facing serious enrollment declines. A statewide task force has been sought by Wisconsin leaders for years to address the erosion of students. It’s time to launch one.
- More Startups — Wisconsin has made extraordinary progress in venture capital investment over the last two decades, but we are still in the middle of the pack for venture capital investments. Entrepreneurs are the key players in reinventing the economy. Wisconsin has been the lagging the nation on GDP growth and pay levels for decades. Again, we need another Economic Summit like the ones 20 years ago that moved Wisconsin more squarely into the innovation economy. Entrepreneurs like Judy Faulkner, Diane Hendricks, the Michels family, the late Don Schneider, Dick Resch of KI Industries in Green Bay, Don Weber of La Crosse, the late Herb Kohler, have kept the state on an upward prosperity trend. They are game changers; we need to nurture more like them. Raising the tax credit for angel investors is one sure bet.
Lowering the temperature and cooling the adversarial rhetoric between the two parties will itself go a long way toward creating a better economic and social climate for Wisconsin. Vos said he was tired of partisan politics ruining Thanksgiving dinners and gatherings at sporting events.
In a welcome statement, he said, “So I wish we could take a little bit of a hiatus, and say, how about we talk about things where we can find some consensus?”
The above list of strategic challenges in Wisconsin offers plenty of room for an olive branch, consensus and a Happier New Year.