On the night of Nov. 6, 2018, the crowd at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Madison was going berserk.
After a long night and a close race, the Associated Press had called Wisconsin’s election for governor. Democrat Tony Evers had defeated Republican incumbent Scott Walker by a little more than a percentage point.
Evers, the mild mannered state schools superintendent and former teacher, took the stage to address the roaring crowd.
“It’s time for a change,” Evers yelled into the microphone. “The voters of Wisconsin spoke and they agree a change is coming.”
Tony Evers, left, and his running mate Mandela Barnes celebrate victory in Wisconsin’s race for governor at the Orpheum Theater early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018 in Madison. Marisa Wojcik/PBS Wisconsin
For Democrats, this moment had felt like a long time coming. Walker had been governor for eight eventful years, and for that entire time, Republicans set the agenda for Wisconsin. Evers’ win would put a stop to that, Democrats thought.
Not only did Evers win his statewide election, Democrats also won races for U.S. Senate, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state. It seemed like the pendulum of power had swung back in their direction.
But that didn’t last long.
The day after the election, Robin Vos, the powerful Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, floated an idea. Republicans, he said, might look at ways to limit the governor’s powers.
Lawmakers moved fast. Just a couple weeks later, they introduced a package of bills that would take powers away from Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul right before they took office.
The day the bills were formally introduced for a public hearing, Vos downplayed them. He said they weren’t about any one person, they were about the balance of power in state government.
“If you read the Constitution, the first branch that is mentioned is the legislative,” he said. “That is supposed to be the most representative of the people. We are the ones that are the closest, we are the ones that have the most direct impact on people’s lives.”
But Vos didn’t introduce these bills in the nearly eight years that Walker was in office.
Vos’ counterpart in the state Senate, Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, was more blunt.
“Listen, I’m concerned,” he said at a press conference with Vos. “I think that Gov.-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”
Rep. John Nygren, left, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Sen. Alberta Darling, give a press conference on Dec. 3, 2018, at the state Capitol ahead of a hearing to discuss lame-duck bills limiting incoming Gov. Tony Evers’ powers. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch
And GOP lawmakers didn’t have to worry either. Despite Democratic victories up and down the ballot in the 2018 election, Republicans still won big majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
In Wisconsin, the political pendulum still swings, but only so far. And when one party has power locked down, there’s a lot it can do.
It’s important to note that some of the biggest GOP accomplishments from the Walker years did not happen because of the political district maps that Republicans passed in 2011.
However, once the map drawn by Republicans took hold, everything that passed in 2011 was effectively locked in.
For example, the law known as Act 10, Walker’s historic changes to public sector unions, was passed by the 2011 Legislature, which was elected on a map drawn by a court in 2002.
That same Legislature, elected on that same 2002 map, also passed Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which Democrats had fought for years, arguing it would disproportionately harm their voters.
Opponents of Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011. Andy Manis/AP Photo
And it wasn’t just things that thousands of people showed up to protest. Other major decisions by that Legislature, in that year, were locked in, too.
For example, one night during budget deliberations in May of 2011, Republicans on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee made a couple of pivotal decisions.
Money was tight that year, so they cut $250 million in state funding from the University of Wisconsin System. Republicans said they didn’t want to cut the UW, they just had to.
“The cut is what it is,” said then-Rep. Pat Strachota, a Republican from West Bend.
But that same night, they passed something that would cost the state money: a new tax credit for manufacturers and agricultural businesses. Vos was chairing the budget committee that night.
“We are saying if you’re a manufacturer, come to Wisconsin,” Vos said. “Make things here.”
This late night meeting was the first time people had seen the proposal, which would mark a major change in Wisconsin’s tax policy. Democrats were aghast.
“This is shameful,” said then-Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat from Milwaukee. “This is outrageous.”
Grigsby and other Democrats said this new tax credit would be too expensive for the state over the long haul.
But they were powerless to stop it, and in the future when Democrats would try to repeal this tax credit and boost university funding, they were never taken seriously by Republicans.
Now, the long term effects of the cuts to the UW and the tax credit are apparent. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the tax credit will have cost the state an estimated $2 billion in lost revenue over the past decade. At the same time, state funding for the UW System has been roughly flat, growing by just 0.27 percent since 2011.
When one party controls every budget for 10 years, decisions like these get locked in.
A busy decade for Republicans
Once the new map kicked in in 2012, Republicans stayed busy.
They started the 2013 session with a bill that would rewrite Wisconsin’s mining laws. It would have cleared the way for a massive iron mine in northern Wisconsin that could have been 1,000 feet deep, three-quarters of a mile wide, and eventually 22 miles long.
The list of GOP accomplishments during these years goes on. Republicans repeatedly expanded Milwaukee’s taxpayer-funded private voucher school program, which eventually became statewide.
Session after session, Republicans passed new restrictions on abortion. These included a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and an ultrasound requirement for people seeking abortions.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds a copy of a controversial mining bill that he just signed Monday, March 11, 2013, at a Milwaukee plant that makes mining equipment. Dinesh Ramde/AP Photo
Over time, Republicans became emboldened. After they passed Act 10, there was speculation that they might go after private sector unions, with a so-called “right-to-work” law.
For years, they downplayed this. But after the 2014 election, Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, said Republicans were thinking about it. By this time, Fitzgerald said they weren’t worried about massive protests.
“If the crowds show up … we just don’t care,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been through the recalls, we’ve been through it all. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.”
And they did. Wisconsin, a state with deep union roots, passed right-to-work.
There were other issues where a past legislature might have been more cautious, but when you have a majority that you know you won’t lose, you can afford to think big.
Like in 2017, when Scott Walker got word from the Trump administration that Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn was looking for a U.S. location to build state-of-the-art LCD screens.
From left to right, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, President Donald Trump and Foxconn Technology Group CEO Terry Gou participate in a groundbreaking event and tour of the new Foxconn facility, Thursday, June 28, 2018, in the Village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. Evan Vucci/AP Photo
Walker described it as a massive manufacturing compound, the size of 11 Lambeau Fields. At the groundbreaking President Donald Trump said the facility would be the “eighth wonder of the world.”
The financial incentives offered to Foxconn were also massive, up to $3 billion in state funds. At the time, the state was offering the company up to $230,000 per job.
Undoing bipartisan compromise
Republicans weren’t just passing new laws during these years. In some cases, they undid bipartisan deals they once supported, like the deal they cut with Democrats in late 2006 to create a new nonpartisan ethics and elections agency.
“Under this agreement, we will create a single, strong, independent and completely nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, and provide it with the funding and independent authority to investigate and prosecute violations of the public trust,” said Democratic then-Gov. Jim Doyle.
Joining Doyle that day to unveil the plan was Fitzgerald, the longtime GOP leader.
“Certainly, I think this is a great day in a bipartisan effort right off the bat,” said Fitzgerald in 2006.
Fitzgerald and Vos voted for the deal, but almost a decade later, their circumstances had changed.
They replaced the GAB with two new agencies — Wisconsin’s Ethics and Elections Commissions — which hired directors who worked at the old Government Accountability Board. Republicans objected to this.
“I can’t have confidence in an agency that still is employing some of the individuals that were there,” said Fitzgerald.
So in 2018, the state Senate fired them, and one of the last big deals cut between Republicans and Democrats before the 2011 map was officially dead.
Power in a pandemic
There’s a lot you can do when your power is locked in, and sometimes, if you don’t want to, you can choose to do nothing.
During the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, there was — for a brief time — bipartisan cooperation in state government. Republicans like Fitzgerald and Vos worked with Evers on a coronavirus relief bill.
“Wisconsinites have endured great sacrifice, and the measures that we have taken and that the governor has taken so far are working,” Fitzgerald said during a virtual session of the Legislature.
At the time, this seemed unusual to put it mildly. Republicans had been fighting with Evers since before he even took office.
This cooperation didn’t last. The day after lawmakers sent this bill to Evers’ desk, the governor’s office extended Wisconsin’s “Safer At Home” order. Less than a week later, Republicans sued to block it, and won. The stay-at-home order was gone, and so was the governor’s power to issue another one.
A sign hangs on the door of a business in downtown Madison on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, left. Protesters of Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order are seen at the Wisconsin State Capitol on April 24, 2020. Angela Major/WPR / Brad Horn/Wisconsin Watch
For more than eight months, the Legislature didn’t meet. This is normally how things go in even-numbered years in Wisconsin, but this was not a typical year.
In the fall, Wisconsin became one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots. Hospitals were overwhelmed. At least one set up overflow beds in its parking garage. One day in November, more than 100 people died.
Nobody wanted to see this happen, but Republicans and Democrats had dramatically different views on how to address it. Democrats wanted to restrict crowds and require masks, and Republicans didn’t.
When you control the Legislature, you get to make these calls. It’s not always doing something new. Sometimes it’s about doing nothing at all.
One fell swoop
Despite the tensions that began with Evers and Republicans in the lame duck session of 2018, and their disagreements over COVID-19, the governor still retained an incredibly important power: the authority to introduce a state budget.
This is significant because the budget is the biggest bill lawmakers pass most sessions. In Wisconsin, this power starts and ends with the governor.
For Evers in 2019, this meant a chance to make good on what he promised voters when they elected him. During a speech to lawmakers in the ornate Assembly chamber, he introduced a plan that was a sharp break from the Walker years.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers his first budget address on Feb. 28, 2019 in the Capitol’s Assembly chamber. PBS Wisconsin
“Folks, let’s get to work,” Evers said as Democrats cheered.
From there, the budget went to the Legislature, giving them a chance to make changes by adding or removing from Evers’ plan. In the past, they might have debated the governor’s proposals one by one.
But not this time. In a committee hearing, Republicans removed 131 items from the Evers’ budget in one fell swoop. With a single vote, the budget suddenly looked vastly different than the one the governor gave them.
This repeated itself when Evers introduced his next budget in 2021, only it was more pronounced this time. Evers included even more Democratic policies in his budget, and Republicans deleted 384 of them with a single vote.
“You know, I sort of feel like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day,’” said Republican Devin LeMahieu, the new Senate majority leader. “I don’t think the governor has learned his lesson at all.”
GOP lawmakers ended up rewriting the budget, largely from scratch. While Democratic lawmakers objected to the changes, Evers eventually signed a budget that was considerably more Republican than the one he introduced.
Despite broad support, some issues languish
It might seem obvious to say, but sometimes the reason proposals don’t become law is that they’re not popular. But other times, popular ideas don’t go anywhere either.
One person who has a good handle on what’s popular and what’s not in Wisconsin is Charles Franklin. He runs the Marquette University Law School poll, which has asked more than 1,200 questions in 66 polls since 2012.
In Wisconsin, the quintessential purple state, a lot of those polls come back pretty close to 50-50. Republicans and Democrats know where they stand, and they’re not budging.
Some issues do break through that divide, though. Franklin said sometimes this happens because societal views shift. He used same-sex marriage as an example — for years the American public was against it, and then public opinion changed.
A Sept. 25, 2020 file photo of Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll. Angela Major/WPR
Franklin said there are signs that a similar change is happening right now with another issue: marijuana legalization.
“We’ve seen substantial evolution from majority opposition to substantial majority support over recent years,” he said.
Lawmakers in other states have taken notice. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states allow recreational marijuana, including Wisconsin’s neighbors Illinois and Michigan.
In Wisconsin, about 59 percent of voters supported legal marijuana in an April 2019 poll.
“But when you add medical marijuana to it, then you start to get these true supermajorities,” Franklin said.
Eighty-three percent supported medical marijuana in that same poll, including strong majorities of voters from both parties.
One of the people who has supported this for years is Madison resident Gary Storck, who uses marijuana to treat his glaucoma.
“It can just be excruciating at times,” Storck said. “It’s like an ice pick in my eye … cannabis really, really helps.”
Madison resident Gary Storck inhales marijuana vapor to treat glaucoma in his apartment on March 20, 2019. Storck says he believes cannabis legalization won’t happen in Wisconsin under current Republican control at the state Capitol. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch
Storck has been pushing to legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin for decades. He felt like they were on the verge of passing it in 2009 during the last session when Democrats were in control.
Lawmakers, including some Republicans have talked about it since then, but the issue goes nowhere. Storck has basically stopped trying.
“I’ve been more and more discouraged every session to the point where I really don’t even actively go to the Capitol anymore,” he said. “I don’t see any point.”
Storck has a theory on why it never goes anywhere: He thinks it’s the map. Republicans don’t have to listen to people like him, Storck said, because their majority is always safe.
Aside from marijuana, Franklin says there are a few other issues that consistently get widespread public support. For example, 80 percent of Wisconsin voters support background checks for private gun sales with majorities across the partisan divide. But proposals have gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
And coincidentally, one of the other issues that polls really high: nonpartisan redistricting.
Specifically, Marquette asked people in February 2020 whether they’d like to have the Legislature and governor, or a nonpartisan redistricting commission handle map-drawing. Seventy percent of Wisconsin voters wanted the latter, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
But to make this happen, the Legislature would have to give up its own power to do redistricting. That’s not likely to happen, Franklin said.
“This is a case where the self-interest of the Legislature flies in the face of whatever public opinion might be,” he said. “It’s just incredibly rare in the country to have found a legislature willing to divest itself of that power.”
That’s not to say that people don’t try. There is a longshot effort in Wisconsin to switch to a nonpartisan redistricting commission.
And the governor set up his own commission to draw what he calls “the people’s maps.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in the Legislature have drawn their own maps. They’ve done a lot with the power they gained in 2011, and the new map could help them keep that power for another decade.
This story is part of “WPR Reports: Mapped Out,” a podcast about redistricting in Wisconsin. Never miss an episode by subscribing now on your favorite podcast app or at wpr.org/mappedout.
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