MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers unveiled a three-pronged plan Wednesday night designed to invest in rural communities throughout the state and intends to roll out a series of bills targeting the issues farmers and their families face.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the State of the State address on Wednesday, January 22, 2020. (WMTV)
Evers doesn’t plan to wait for lawmakers to consider the measures either. In his speech, the Democratic governor announced he plans to recall all lawmakers back to Madison next week to take up the measures in a special session.
“In Wisconsin, we’re known as America’s Dairyland. Heck, it's on our license plates,” Evers told legislators touting the fact the state makes more than a quarter of the nation’s cheese and the industry employs nearly 80,000 people, pumping $43.4 billion into the economy.
“But at the end of the day, these numbers tell the story of the folks whose sweat, work, and pride have been the pillar of our state for generations,” he continued, going on to detail the burdens rural communities face, including the loss of approximately one-third of the state’s dairy farms between 2011 and 2018. To combat that, one of his bill aims to increase the state’s dairy exports 20 percent over the next four years. Additionally, he proposes expanding the Farm-to-School and Farm-to-Fork to increase the demand within Wisconsin as well.
Evers’ plan also works to expand mental health services into rural areas, noting that while the “farm center is doing important work in this area… we know folds need access to these resources closer to home.” The final two prongs in the Governor’s rural initiative entails creating an Office of Rural Prosperity, within the Wisconsin Economic Develop Corporation and bringing together members of multiple industries for a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity” that is meant to find long-term solutions.
But, rural communities weren’t the only economic issue on Evers’ mind Wednesday night. After he promoted the increase in aid to Wisconsin schools that passed last year, he turned to the biggest problem facing college students today: student debt.
Calling it “the elephant in the room,” Evers argued that all of that debt weighs heavily, not only on students, but their families too and prevents graduates from meeting their financial goals going forward, from buying a car to saving for retirement, or even starting a family. To combat the issue, Evers will sign an executive order to create a task force to study the issue.
We have to work on making higher education available to more folks in our state. We have to understand how education-related debt affects not just our students, but their families, too,” he said.
And, with the decennial census already underway, Evers wants the state to be ready for when it ends and it comes time to redraw Congressional and legislative districts across the entire state. To prepare for that time, he called for a non-partisan redistricting commission that he calls “the People’s Maps,” and expects to sign an executive order to create it in the coming days. The commission wouldn’t be filled with elected politicians, lobbyists, and consultants, he promised, and would go to every part of the state before drawing new district lines.
“I believe, and Wisconsinites do, too, that people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” he asserted.
Looking back on the previous legislative session, Evers told lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that he was proud of the fact more than 95 percent of the bills he signed had bipartisan support. Earlier in the day, Republican leaders also took to the microphone for a pre-speech response and also pointed to bipartisanship legislation that stretched back through the decade.
Among the specific legislation passed last year, Evers used his speech to highlight the 10 percent tax cut included in the budget that he said provided a tax cut worth more than a half-billion dollars to working and middle-class families.
“I know the budget I signed didn’t include everything that everybody wanted—I know it didn’t include everything I wanted—but because of the budget we proposed, we were able to move the needle on critically important issues, some for the first time in a generation,” he noted.
Having referenced the new moneys earmarked for Wisconsin schools, Evers added the budget included more than $465 million to help solve what he described as a transportation crisis, and denied that his initial plan to find a long-term solution included a dollar tax on gas.
While Evers focused mainly on the past year and the future, he did acknowledge a shift from his predecessor when talking about the state’s criminal justice reform efforts, criticizing former Gov. Scott Walker for never visiting a correctional facility, while in his first year, Evers said he’s been to six so far.
“And, the Wisconsin Parole Commission is working to make sure we get our parole system back on track,” he added.
With a new decade dawning, Evers encouraged lawmakers not “to cling to the nostalgia of yesterday” and get caught up in complacency.
“We must set out into the new decade with a renewed sense of purpose. We must be resolved to confront the challenges we face today, and we must be eager to embrace what may come tomorrow.”