Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has one proposal for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers as they prepare to negotiate the state's 2023-25 budget: Don't waste our time, and we won't waste yours.
The Rochester Republican — who has led the state Assembly for a decade — said he’s opting to “hit the reset button” rather than rehashing the same arguments between Evers and the Republican-led Legislature that occurred during the governor’s first term.
It remains to be seen how long the bridge between the Assembly speaker and the governor will remain intact, but the fact that they’re having discussions in the same room indicates a change in the state’s political terrain following the November election, in which both won hard-fought electoral battles.
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, Vos discussed budget priorities, policy debates and relationships among the state’s political leaders.
It would be “a waste of time” to reintroduce every Republican-authored bill Evers vetoed the last time around, Vos said. There are some proposals he knows don’t have a chance, but there are others, he said, he’d like to work on with the hope of making changes that could get them signed into law.
“I also hope that we would draw less red lines, if we're going to really find consensus,” Vos said during the Thursday interview.
That being said, the speaker acknowledged, there are some proposals Republicans will not support — a federal expansion of Medicaid and legalization of recreational marijuana among them.
Additionally, he said, he would not support budget initiatives that create new programs, initiate new spending or otherwise expand the size of government.
“Putting all those things in the budget is no different than me rehashing all 126 bills that were vetoed. It’s a waste of time,” Vos said. “So my hope and my plea would be, don't waste our time by putting a bunch of (items) in there that you know are never going to happen.”
Vos and Evers agree on at least one thing: the current distribution of state dollars to local governments isn’t working.
The question is whether they — along with a majority of lawmakers — can agree on a fix.
“We know that 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, we are going to have one of two options if we do everything the same: We're going to have a dramatically higher tax burden, or we're going to have a dramatically lower level of services. I don't want either one. So, we can fix that if we work together and figure out an answer,” Vos said.
Vos said that when it comes to shared revenue — the amount of unrestricted state dollars municipalities receive — he’d like to focus “more on innovation and sharing of services and less about protecting the status quo.”
“If we just give 2% more or 3% more to do the exact same thing, that's OK for two years, but it means that we get this end result where lower services or higher taxes result, and neither one of those are good for the state,” he said.
Vos said he’s been working on the issue with stakeholders representing Wisconsin’s cities, towns and counties — and while they’re not yet near a consensus, they’re making progress. His preference is to “create a huge incentive” for local governments to share services — something he said he believed tight levy limits (state-imposed restrictions on how much local governments can raise taxes) would force, but haven’t to the extent that he’d hoped.
Rather than imposing a “stick,” Vos said, “there's a way that we could create some ‘carrots’ to say, ‘If you want to do everything the same and you want to kind of die a slow death, we're more than happy to let you do that. But if you want to innovate, we want to be a partner.’”
Evers — who won a second term in November — said in a recent interview that increasing shared revenue is his top priority for the state’s two-year spending plan.
“We have to do something around shared revenue for our municipalities and our counties and our small towns,” Evers said, adding that local governments, which provide “a lot of services directly for the people of Wisconsin,” have been “underfunded.”
The governor pledged during his reelection campaign to include a $91.4 million shared revenue funding boost in the 2023-25 budget, pointing to a memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing that, since 2011, state aid to communities was cut by more than 9% while public safety costs increased by more than 16%.
Vos and Evers appear to be taking the first steps toward mending what was a famously fractured relationship throughout the governor’s first term. At the time of this interview, the two were set to meet for an hour Thursday afternoon — the first time they’d be in the same room alone in at least two years, Vos said.
“I'll meet as often as (Evers) wants. I think more is better — without drawing a lot of bright lines, because if we just go in there and each go to our corner, then meeting doesn't serve a purpose,” Vos said.
In an earlier interview, Evers said he’d recently met with LeMahieu, and noted the upcoming meeting with Vos.
“Whether that becomes a regular thing or not, we'll see,” Evers said. “Our staff speak together all the time. … If there's a need to meet, we will meet, but I don't know about regular (meetings). We'll see how it plays out.”
Education is also a shared priority for the governor and the speaker.
“Our schools, individually, go to referendums on a regular basis just to keep the doors open,” Evers said in a recent interview. “We have to do more for them.”
During his campaign, Evers said he would include a proposal to boost K-12 spending by $2 billion in the state budget. Vos subsequently suggested he could agree to boost public school spending if it came with an expansion of the state’s school choice program. Evers hasn’t entirely ruled out such a deal, but has made it clear that he opposes universal school choice — a policy that would allow any student, regardless of household income, to receive a taxpayer-funded voucher to attend a private school.
Acknowledging that universal school choice won’t likely garner bipartisan agreement, Vos suggested a few proposals, including making teachers’ salaries similar regardless of whether they teach at public or private schools, and making it easier for a student to switch enrollment from one public school to another.
Tax policy will also be at the forefront of budget negotiations, with Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, advocating for a move to a flat tax while Evers pushes for a tax cut focused on middle-income Wisconsinites.
The debate comes as the state is projected to end the current fiscal year with an unprecedented $6.6 billion surplus.
Under a flat tax, all Wisconsinites would pay the same percentage in income tax regardless of what they earn. Currently, higher earners pay a higher tax percentage, which is also how the federal income tax is structured. Three neighboring states — Illinois, Iowa and Michigan, have a flat income tax.
Evers has already approved some tax cuts proposed by Republicans. The state’s 2021-23 budget included $2 billion in income tax cuts, achieved by bringing the state's third income tax bracket — which currently applies to individuals making between $25,520 and $280,950 per year (and married joint filers making between $34,030 and $374,600 per year) — down from 6.27% to 5.3%.
But the governor — who campaigned on cutting taxes by 10% for middle-income Wisconsinites — has said a flat tax is a “non-starter” in the upcoming budget. A flat tax would give “tax breaks to people that, frankly, are our highest income folks in the state of Wisconsin,” he said in a recent interview.
For Vos, the starting point in any tax policy would be for everyone who pays taxes “to get some kind of relief.” The next goal would be to make Wisconsin more competitive with other states.
“So maybe we can't get all the way to a flat tax like Sen. LeMahieu wants — but I'm certainly willing to work and fight for it — but we could make progress,” Vos said. “We certainly could look and say, ‘How do we make it less expensive to retire here?’ … I worry that we are losing people — because when you retire, you volunteer, you give to charity, you see your grandkids. Every person that moves out of state loses those opportunities, and so do the people who are left behind, so I hope we can fix that to try to keep more people in Wisconsin.”
Cap Times reporter Jack Kelly contributed to this story.