Wisconsin’s Governor Is Teaching a Master Class on How to Outmaneuver the GOP

Wisconsin’s Governor Is Teaching a Master Class on How to Outmaneuver the GOP

Wisconsin’s Governor Is Teaching a Master Class on How to Outmaneuver the GOP

Employing the most sweeping and creative line-item veto power in the nation, Democrat Tony Evers reworked a budget plan to score an epic win for public education.

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Surrounded by applauding elementary school students, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed a state budget plan on Wednesday that effectively guaranteed increased funding for the rest of every young Wisconsinite’s K-12 education. And for the children who will follow those children into the state’s public schools. And the grandchildren of those children. And the grandchildren of the grandchildren. And the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren.

With a few strokes of his uniquely powerful veto pen, the Democratic governor had remade the narrowly drawn biennial budget passed by Republican legislators to boost education funding for the next four centuries. Yes, really: Instead of lifting state-imposed limits on raising school revenues through 2024–25, Evers artfully reworked the numbers—crossing out the initial “20” and the hyphen—to extend the plan until 2425.

Wisconsin’s gubernatorial veto power, which was written into the state Constitution in 1930, has survived repeated court tests and modest amendments across 10 decades. What distinguishes it from the powers other governors have is the inclusion of what’s been referred to as a “digit veto” that allows the removal of a number to change a spending plan. Democratic and Republican governors have employed it over the past 50 years, but none so audaciously as Evers just did.

As news of the governor’s move spread nationally, everyone was talking about the seeming optics of a mild-mannered governor so theatrically beating conservatives in a high-stakes battle over the future of public education. But there was more to it than that. The boldness with which Evers had acted provided a template for Democrats—perhaps even a Democratic president—for unapologetically knocking back Republicans who are more interested in satisfying corporate donors than in providing health care for the sick, housing for the homeless, or education for working-class children. Pointing to Evers as an example of the sort of move progressives have been begging Democrats to make, SiriusXM radio host and veteran political commentator John Fugelsang exclaimed, “This is what people have been waiting for.” Republicans were furious. Democrats were gleeful. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page may have been grumbling about the governor, but Derek Black, the University of South Carolina Law School professor who authored the book Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, summed up the sentiments of education advocates when he observed that Evers “stands out in an era of public ed bashing governors.”

A Democratic strategist was blunter, declaring, “BALLER move by Tony Evers.”

It was a dramatic moment for a bespectacled, white-haired, 71-year-old governor who is famous for eschewing drama.

Evers has never minded being identified as the least exciting state official in the country. Indeed, after he was reelected last year by an unexpectedly comfortable margin, the governor declared, “As it turns out, boring wins.”

But the one thing Evers has always been enthusiastic about is education. A former public school teacher, principal, administrator, and three-term state superintendent of public instruction, he has dedicated his entire adult life to fighting for innovative learning agendas, equity initiatives, and, above all, expanded funding for public education.

Unfortunately, in the battleground state of Wisconsin, Evers had no willing legislature to work with. Because of extreme gerrymandering, the Democratic governor has been saddled with a Republican-controlled state House and Senate that has been inclined toward shifting money to private schools via so-called “choice” schemes. This week, however, Evers upended the education debate—perhaps perpetually—with a few slashes of an extremely powerful veto pen.

The governor had proposed a significant expansion of public school funding in his budget plan. The legislature cut it back and sent Evers a budget that was so disappointing that many left-leaning Democrats urged him to veto the entire plan. Instead, Evers chose to alter the document, employing what is widely regarded as “the broadest line-item veto authority of any governor in the nation.”

The partial veto of the Republican language regarding education funding was actually quite small in terms of pen strokes on the page. The budget plan that the legislature approved and sent to the governor featured a formula for increasing state-imposed limits on how much money school districts are allowed to raise by $325 per student through “the 2024-25 school year.” Evers’s slashing of the “20” from 2024 and the hyphen allowed him to sign a final document that allows for the expansion of funding by $325 per student through “the 2425 school year.”

Evers said his intent was to “provide school districts with predictable long-term increases for the foreseeable future.” But in reality, he cleared the way for increases far beyond the foreseeable future. As one commentator noted, Wisconsin’s schools will have predictable funding increases “for two centuries after the birth of Captain Kirk”—the fictional Star Trek commander whose backstory had him being born in Riverside, Iowa, on March 22, 2233.

The school funding veto wasn’t the only one that Evers used to alter the budget. He made 50 other partial vetoes, reworking the $99 billion two-year state budget on a number of fronts. Evers upended Republicans’ plan for a $3.5 billion income tax cut that was skewed to benefit their wealthy campaign donors. He vetoed a scheme developed by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to slash 188 University of Wisconsin System positions associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. And he vetoed a $10 million grant to Milwaukee’s tourism bureau, which was expected to provide substantial support for next year’s Republican National Convention in that city.

But the education funding move was the big one for Evers, who ran for and won reelection in 2022 on a promise to fight for major improvements in the funding of cash-strapped public schools. Blocked by the legislature, he could have folded and simply blamed his GOP rivals. But Evers was determined to do something that’s rare in politics: keep a campaign promise. And he had a tool that most other governors lack: the sweeping line-item veto authority that, as political writer R.W. Apple marveled many years ago, allows a governor “to strike words, sentences and numbers from any bill.”

Republicans can try to overturn the partial veto. But Democrats have enough votes in the legislature to sustain it. And court challenges are unlikely to undo Evers’s emendation, especially now that progressives are poised to take majority control of the state Supreme Court. So, while everyone else was buzzing about the governor’s “baller move,” Evers posted an image of himself quietly sipping from his coffee mug—with just the slightest glimmer in his eyes.

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