MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s new Democratic governor and the Republicans who control the Legislature are having such a hard time getting along that even the signing of a seemingly innocuous, unanimously approved bill morphed into a partisan fight.
It’s only been months since Tony Evers took over as governor, yet there have already been lawsuits, claims of sexism and accusations from Republican leaders that Evers is “out of touch.”
Evers, who spent a lifetime in public education, first as a teacher and finally as the state superintendent of schools, has dismissed much of the back and forth as “huffing and puffing.” However, there is no escaping that there is a pall over the Statehouse.
The governor and Republican legislative leaders are barely talking and the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader told hundreds of party faithful at the state GOP convention this month that Evers is “out of touch” with “wacky ideas.”
Evers’ spokeswoman responded by saying the male Republican leaders refuse to talk with Evers’ chief of staff and other top aides because they are women — an accusation Republicans derided as “completely asinine,” calling Evers’ staff “clueless.”
Evers didn’t back down, calling on people to “connect the dots” to determine if Republicans were sexist.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Friday called on Evers to apologize after Vos took back his false accusation that Evers forced returning Wisconsin National Guard troops to wait for hours on an airplane to accommodate his schedule.
Evers’ relationship with Republicans got off to a rocky start. First, he narrowly beat Scott Walker, a hero to many Republicans who worked closely with the GOP-controlled Legislature to lead a conservative revolution in Wisconsin the past eight years. Then, before Evers took office, Republicans hastily called a lame-duck legislative session to weaken his powers and protect Walker’s legacy and policies.
They’re now embroiled in multiple lawsuits over the laws passed in December.
In between the partisan posturing and name-calling, things have ground to a halt in the Legislature on many fronts. The Legislature has met for only five days this year and Republicans have passed only five bills that Evers has signed into law. One of those was naming an intersection after a deceased Republican lawmaker.
Evers vetoed the first bill Republicans passed, which would have cut income taxes by about the same amount Evers campaigned on. Evers objected to how it would be paid for.
The first measure Evers signed, sponsored by Republicans but passed with unanimous bipartisan support, removed the words “mental retardation” from state rules. But Evers lost an opportunity to build bridges and instead angered Republicans by signing an executive order ahead of the bill signing that essentially had the same effect as the new law.
“I would think on a bill eliminating a term everyone agrees is outdated and inappropriate, and you can’t find common ground on that … how in the world are you going to find common ground on other topics?” Vos said.
Not passing many bills early in the term of a new governor isn’t unusual, given that nearly everything of importance that passes is included in the state budget, said former longtime Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen. The most important thing for Evers and Republicans to do at this point is get to know one another and build relationships as they work on the budget, he said.
“I always thought in government, and personal life, if you meet with somebody and talk to them in person, it’s much harder to lob grenades,” said Cullen, who crossed party lines in 1987 to work for then-Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and is now chairman of the board of the nonpartisan Common Cause of Wisconsin.
Republicans have complained about not knowing whom to negotiate with in the governor’s office over the pending state budget. Evers insists he has been clear.
Evers’ budget proposal included many of the ideas he campaigned on that Republicans have long opposed, including expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage and raising K-12 education funding by 10%, or $1.4 billion.
Republicans killed most of the major proposals with a single vote. And last week they dramatically pared back the education funding proposal by $900 million.
“Governor Evers was never going to get everything he wanted out of the Republican Legislature,” Cullen said. “And the Republican Legislature has to learn they’re not going to get all they want from the governor.”
In a sign of potential progress, Evers met with Republican legislative leaders last week and emerged saying he was optimistic they could work together on education, transportation funding and criminal justice reform.
Evers, who is the keynote speaker at this weekend’s state Democratic Party convention, was expected to focus on those areas where there’s at least some hope of getting Republicans to pass something.
Republicans were more cautious about whether progress was being made. Vos said it was “too early to tell,” but he also signaled that he may be ready to move on.
“In politics, it is a mistake to have a grudge,” Vos said.
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