End-Running Gridlock

There is so much Wisconsin needs to do to deal with rising economic inequality, health insecurity, social injustice and the climate crisis.

Turn the minimum wage into a living wage. Further reward work by cutting taxes on earned wages while raising them on unearned income like capital gains that currently are taxed at a lower rate. Get more people health care by accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds that the state has turned down. Invest in renewable energy and extend broadband to rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods that can’t get high-speed Internet. Legalize marijuana and tax sales to raise new revenues to help pay for these needed investments while at the same time striking a blow for racial justice in a state where Black people are over four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

None of these actions will be taken through separate state legislation. Republicans who control the legislature have made it abundantly clear they won’t pass any bills the governor wants. The Democratic governor can veto any Republican legislation, and his vetoes stick because Republicans lack the supermajorities needed to override them. It all leads to stalemate.

The only way to get around partisan gridlock and get any of what voters want and our state sorely needs is to put it in the state budget. The budget bill is the one piece of legislation that has to pass every two years. The next one is due in 2021.

Formulating the budget starts with the governor’s recommendations in late February. Then it’s the legislature’s turn. Legislators can ignore what the governor proposes and rewrite the budget as they see fit…unless the governor has some bargaining chips. Gaining needed negotiating leverage is why Governor Tony Evers needs to propose zeroing out funding for private school subsidies.

The voucher system that doles out these taxpayer-funded subsidies for private schools is one of the GOP’s most beloved pet programs. When ruling Republicans in the state senate and assembly include funding for the program in the budget, as they surely will, the governor can eliminate the funding again using his extensive veto authority. As mentioned, Republicans do not have the two-thirds majorities in both houses required to override his vetoes.

That means Evers has it in his power to dismantle the voucher program. In order to save taxpayer-subsidized private schooling, Republicans will have no choice but to support some of the governor’s budget initiatives. This is the one and only practical way to overcome partisan gridlock in Wisconsin’s divided government.

Say legislative Republicans won’t budge and refuse to support any of what the governor seeks. He can make one of their signature programs go away. Eliminating the voucher scheme would be no great loss to our state. It was started nearly 30 years ago with promises that it would boost student achievement and improve the performance of both public and private schools throughout the state. It has failed to deliver the promised results. Voucher students do no better than their peers in public schools. By some measures they do worse. What these private school subsidies have done is siphon resources away from community schools, weakening them badly, especially in rural areas of the state.

Up to now, Wisconsin Republicans have shown little to no interest in working with Evers and have blocked his actions at every turn. To get the budget voters want and our state needs, he needs to play hardball with them.

Mike McCabe

December 10, 2020