Discover more from The Recombobulation Area
12 things to watch in Wisconsin state government in 2023
From the budget surplus to local funding taking center stage to the ongoing abortion policy debate and more, there's a big year ahead in Wisconsin's state government.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
It was Inauguration Week at the State Capitol in Madison this week, and beneath all the pomp and circumstance and totally believable talk of bipartisanship is a genuine opportunity for a reset. The dynamic of the last four years in state government was changed by the outcome of the not-a-red-wave 2022 midterm elections.
Republicans failed to win back the governor’s seat, and Tony Evers won re-election by a “Wisconsin landslide” of 3.5%. It’ll be another four years for Two-Term Tony. So much of Republicans’ governing strategy since 2018 was designed around making Evers a one-term governor. Their strategy failed.
Democrats also won statewide races for Attorney General and Secretary of State, returning Josh Kaul and Doug LaFollette, respectively, to office. And through newly redistricted maps that are even more egregiously gerrymandered than what had been considered the most gerrymandered state legislative maps in the nation, Republicans added to their majority in the state legislature, but failed to gain a supermajority. The only office to flip was that for State Treasurer, with Republican John Lieber winning the election for the open seat, but that is an office with very limited responsibilities.
Fundamentally, though, it’s the same situation Wisconsin has found itself in for the last four years – a Democratic governor with limited powers and a very powerful Republican-controlled legislature with an entrenched majority able to evade accountability by way of their gerrymandered maps. It's a divided government, in the most purple of purple states.
But there is a shift. The failure of Republicans’ obstruction-at-all-costs approach should mean at least some kind of course correction heading into 2023. But considering the top leadership for Republicans in state government – Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu – is staying the same, should we really expect all that much to change?
Let’s recombobulate, with these 12 things to watch for Wisconsin state government in 2023.
1. Will Republican hard-line obstruction (and norms-abandoning) politics continue in Tony Evers’ second term?
Just before Christmas, Fred Prehn resigned from the board of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This Dec. 23 news dump put an end to one of the more absurd long-running sagas in state government, where Prehn, an appointee of former governor Scott Walker, had overstayed his term by nearly 20 months, blocking Gov. Evers from appointing his replacement.
But the Prehn saga was not a standalone problem, but one indicative of larger disassembling of basic governing norms in Wisconsin. A Democratic governor essentially had to win twice for state Republicans to recognize his legitimate ability to govern. Three GOP-appointed members of the state’s technical college board also resigned this week – also 20 months after their terms expired.
Those are far from the only problems with the way Republicans have treated the governor’s appointments. For the entirety of Gov. Evers’ first term, nearly 180 (!) of his appointees remained unconfirmed by the GOP-controlled State Senate. That includes several cabinet secretaries that have had the title of “Secretary-designee” for years. No leader of the Department of Health Services was confirmed throughout the four-year term, for example, and that was a term that included a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Norms of responsible governing have been broken in Wisconsin and it was Republicans who did the breaking.
So, will Republicans continue this trend of hard-line tactics into Evers’ second term?
The gavel-in, gavel-out responses to Gov. Evers’ special sessions in many ways defined the Republican-controlled legislature’s relationship with the Democratic governor. Between actions like that, refusing to even hold a public hearing for almost any bills with Democratic co-sponsors and the absurd refusal to even vote on Evers’ appointments, this is an approach that can’t reasonably continue in 2023 onward, right? Right?!?
There's at least a glimmer of hope that Republicans in the legislature will recognize that it can’t play four years of legislative keep-away if it wants any chance of winning statewide elections. You could easily make the case that Robin Vos and his scorched earth approach to governing at the state level is a big reason why Republicans lost a winnable race for governor in a GOP advantage year. From gaveling-out of even having a simple debate on the state’s wildly outdated abortion law to the extended, insulting, disastrous Gableman investigation (which only ended through Vos’ vindictive nature, not because it was a genuinely problematic undertaking), the last two years under the Assembly Speaker’s leadership were especially toxic and undeniably partisan, even going as far to suggest that certain Democratic votes don’t count. Perhaps Wisconsin Republicans who would want to avoid a similar fate in future statewide elections by clearing the extremely low bar of basic governance that they’d been avoiding, upholding basic respect for the votes and views of their political opponents, and retreating from the unaccountable circus politics of the last four years.
I’m hopeful, yes, but I wouldn’t exactly say I’m expecting much to be all that different.
2. The State Supreme Court race looms large
The biggest political story of the year could very well be the election for Wisconsin Supreme Court. The primary will be on Feb. 21 and the general election is on April 4. The importance of this race cannot be overstated. In addition to electing someone to a 10-year term, it will determine the balance of power in the state’s highest court.
The timing of this race, happening during the beginning of a new legislative session, could have a real impact on governing in Wisconsin. Republicans and Democrats alike know the mammoth importance of this election, as a victory for either of the two liberal candidates would open the door to a legal challenge to the state’s ridiculously gerrymandered maps – Republicans’ skeleton key to holding power in Wisconsin no matter how many statewide elections they lose.
We’re already seeing examples of how this race will enter into the halls of the Senate and Assembly. Republicans in the legislature are already maneuvering on a key issue that could come into play in this election – cash bail – fast-tracking a constitutional amendment vote that could end up on the very same spring ballot as the election for the State Supreme Court.
The four candidates in the race – conservatives Jennifer Dorow and Daniel Kelly; liberals Janet Protasiewicz and Everett Mitchell – each filed their required paperwork to get on the ballot this week, and next week will feature the first public forum with those candidates, at a WisPolitics event in Madison on Monday, Jan. 9, so the campaign is about to enter its next phase.
Again, we cannot overstate the importance of this race.
Last May, I wrote a column about how Wisconsinites had the chance over the next 12 months to restore democracy in our state.
Step one? Re-elect Tony Evers and Josh Kaul. Done and done.
Step two: Flip the open seat on the state Supreme Court. We can make it happen on April 4.
The Recombobulation Area is a reader-supported publication. To help fund our work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
3. How will legislators use the state’s budget surplus?
Wisconsin is entering this session with something rather unique: A budget surplus bigger than any in state history. The surplus is projected to be north of $6.5 billion.
Every budget debate happening in Wisconsin going forward will be happening with that surplus in mind.
But this is a one-time surplus that exists in large part because of federal stimulus dollars that came to states through pandemic relief packages passed in 2020 and 2021. Similar funds are obviously not coming again. But this still offers an opportunity to make a lasting impact, and not just provide one-time benefits.
4. Local funding set to take center stage in state debates
One of the first topics we covered here at The Recombobulation Area when we launched in 2019 was Milwaukee’s looming revenue and infrastructure crisis.
Now, in 2023, addressing the broken way in which local government is funded in Wisconsin is being treated as a priority by the newly re-elected Democratic governor. A day-after-inauguration meeting with the mayors of the state’s five biggest cities (see above) sent a clear message that this would be at the top of this year’s to-do list.
Fixing the state’s broken shared revenue formula is something Evers said during the gubernatorial campaign’s lone debate that would be his top priority in his second term. With the budget surplus being what it is – and with local governments being starved for funds for years – this is an obvious need and we now have the clear ability to meet that need.
Local revenue has been a much-discussed topic here in Milwaukee as of late, as well, with both Mayor Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley sounding the alarm on dire fiscal challenges both the City and County face in the coming years, and working with legislative leaders to find a path forward.
Robin Vos, of course, holds many of the cards here. He has said he wants Milwaukee to consider privatizing or sharing services, and has said that “revenue without reform is DOA” (in between misguided insults directed at the city).
On the one hand, you could see this as Vos being the stubborn, anti-Milwaukee legislator that he’s always been. But on the other hand, you could see this as progress.
Two years ago, Vos said any local control sales tax is “dead on arrival, never going to happen.” Going from “never” to actual negotiations is indeed better than where we were two years ago. And there is a building level of acknowledgement that the way we fund local government is much more than a Milwaukee problem; it’s something that impacts every municipality across the state. Now is the time to get something done on this issue.
Dueling headlines from the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s recent research really put this problem into view:
We know what the state needs to do. So, will it actually get done? Or will Republicans stand in the way again, as they have during the last two budget cycles?
5. Will Wisconsin finally expand Medicaid?
Medicaid expansion hasn’t exactly been a hot topic as of late, but Evers put it on the forefront of his inauguration messaging, both in comments with the media before his inauguration and in the speech itself.
It continues to be pretty ridiculous that Wisconsin has not accepted the federal Medicaid expansion. We’re now the only state in the Midwest and one of only 12 states in the nation to not have expanded Medicaid. The state is certainly on an island now.
Those ultra-lefty voters in **checks notes** South Dakota made the state the seventh to expand Medicaid through a ballot initiative in the most recent election. Voters have yet to turn down the expansion in any state no matter how conservative when it’s been put to the ballot. But Wisconsin doesn’t have such an option, and it is now in the hands of the Republicans in the legislature. Evers will again propose to expand Medicaid – and just as a reminder, about half of those who are on Medicaid are children and more than half of Wisconsin nursing home residents are on Medicaid – and legislative Republicans appear to be particularly dug in on this issue.
But this, like so many of the issues Evers highlighted in his second inaugural address, is the type of issue that polls in the 60%-70% approval range in the Marquette University Law School Poll, and should be the type of thing that Republican legislators could take less of a hard-line stance on. But perhaps not.
Either way, the end of the Medicaid funding enhancements that came through pandemic relief will be ending at some point this year, and while this has helped the state’s bottom line over the past few years and is in no small part a reason why the budget surplus is as large as it is, there will be a need to revisit expansion this year.
It’s long past time that Wisconsin gets with the program and accepts these funds to help deliver assistance to those in need.
6. The abortion debate
The State Supreme Court still has not ruled on legal challenges to the state’s 1849 abortion ban. It is unclear what is happening there. So, that law continuing to be on the books means that there’s currently no exceptions for rape or incest and exceptions for the health of the mother are unclear, at best.
Vos signaled that they would work to pass a bill granting those exceptions, but Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said he wouldn’t, acknowledging that Evers would veto it. The governor has said that he would veto any bill that keeps the 1849 ban in place and wants to “go back to where we were with Roe v. Wade.”
This was clearly a losing issue for Republicans in the midterms. Huge majorities of both parties support those exceptions. Depending on how things break with the Spring Election primary for State Supreme Court, it could be a losing issue for a Republican-backed candidate, too, and certainly purports to be a top issue in the race.
But in the meantime, the state will continue to be stuck with an outdated and unclear law with legislative leaders completely refusing to even discuss the issue, gaveling-out of multiple special sessions on the matter called by Gov. Evers.
7. The education funding debate
The state’s budget surplus of more than $6 billion is part of each and every one of these “things to watch” here on this list, in no place more so than in the debate over education funding. Evers, as the former state superintendent, has a chance to make his mark as the “education governor” he aims to be. In his inaugural address, he said “[W]e should fully fund our public schools, keep class sizes small, invest in kids’ mental health, and retain and build upon our talented education workforce.”
During Robin Vos’ inauguration day speech, however, he talked about how “dumping money” into education is not always the solution, and indicated a desire for “real reform.” There’s an inevitable public school vs. “school choice” debate lurking here.
Education and school funding is always an important budget topic in Wisconsin and that will certainly be the case this year, too.
8. …a flat tax? What are Republicans thinking?
During the campaign, gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels signaled that he would be interested in enacting a flat tax if he were to become governor. Here at The Recombobulation Area, Marquette professor Phil Rocco took an in-depth look at what a potential flat tax might mean for Wisconsin. Republicans were incredulous, saying that was not a policy the Republican gubernatorial campaign had put forth (even though it clearly was what they wanted).
And almost immediately after the election, of course, Republican legislative leaders made it clear that they were, in fact, looking to implement a flat tax. Huh. HUH! Huh. Interesting.
Anyway, a flat tax would mean a big tax break for the wealthy in Wisconsin. And if it was done in a way to make sure taxes were cut across the board, it would mean deep and potentially crippling cuts to state services. (You should really read Rocco’s breakdown for more on this).
But after all, as former president Barack Obama noted, cutting taxes for the wealthy is really Republicans’ only economic policy.
Robin Vos, in his inauguration day speech, mentioned wanting to enact this flat tax – campaign’s over, huh? – and went out of his way to say there’s “absolutely nothing wrong with” rewarding the wealthy through such a tax structure.
He also went on a tangent about retired couples with second homes who are making their primary residence somewhere other than Wisconsin. This is not the first time he’s mentioned this in recent months. Does he think this is a major problem for everyday Wisconsinites? Is he going to call an extraordinary session on snowbirds and second homes? Truly bizarre.
And the context in which he brought this up was about what he characterized to be Wisconsin’s “demographic” challenges — no net population growth over the last decade, combined with an aging population. (Gee, who could have been in charge during that period of flat population? Whose fault could this be? It’s a real mystery!).
But this continues to be a frequent refrain for Republicans, that cutting taxes for the wealthy or enacting a flat tax would help grow the state’s population. Republicans wanting to cut taxes is far from a new policy position, but with this as a stated end-goal? It just doesn’t add up.
Tony Evers, to his credit, has said a flat-tax is a “non-starter” and something he would veto. Good.
9. Wisconsin, in contrast with Minnesota and Michigan
Wisconsin will be entering this fall under divided government – a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature – but the neighboring states of Minnesota and Michigan are coming into 2023 with unified Democratic government. Democrats flipped the State Senate in Minnesota, and in Michigan, following a shift to independent redistricting (huh. HUH!), their state legislature will be under Democratic majority control for the first time in decades.
While Wisconsin might be slightly to the right of those two states, politically they are probably the two states that are most similar to Wisconsin.
What happens in those two states will offer an interesting contrast to what Wisconsin is doing, given how new the Democratic majorities are there.
10. There’s new Democratic leadership in the Wisconsin State Legislature
This year ushered in a great deal of change in the Wisconsin State Legislature. Yes, it’s still a Republican majority, but 30 new members were sworn in this week. Of that group, there are 24 new members of the Assembly (16 Republicans, eight Democrats) and six new members of the State senate (five Republicans, one Democrat).
And while Robin Vos remains the longest-serving speaker in the state’s history, the session will begin with different Democratic leadership than last term in both chambers. Greta Neubauer took over as the Assembly’s Democratic leader during the last session, and Melissa Agard was just elected Senate Democratic Leader.
It remains to be seen, of course, what this new group of legislative leadership will do in the coming session, but it will certainly be worth watching just how this new group of leaders acts as the minority party in Madison.
11. Will state Republicans continue to spend millions to say people’s votes don’t count?
We sure hope not. But let’s not forget that legislative Republicans spent much of the two years following the 2020 election saying that our votes don’t count. It was beyond insulting.
12. Will Evers’ approach to budget discussions be different in his second term?
Winning a Wisconsin landslide like Two-Term Tony did puts him in a different position than the one he was in during the last two budget cycles, where he ultimately signed two Republican-authored budgets.
Is it possible he could be more of a hard-line negotiator this time around? The threat of that governor’s veto could loom larger, and he could dig in on issues like Medicaid or education funding, since the 71-year-old governor is likely not headed toward another re-election fight in 2026. Could now be the time to play some hardball against a Republican legislature that appears to be more internally divided than it has been in years past? It has to be a consideration.
There’s so much more we could get into, too. This list could be much longer than 12 items. Infrastructure is going to be a big deal in the year ahead, especially with issues like expanding access to broadband or cleaning up PFAS or lead in drinking water or through any of the federal funding coming down through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or the Inflation Reduction Act. Addressing issues involved with the opioid and fentanyl crisis needs to happen. Rising gun violence in Milwaukee is a problem that warrants action from the state. Marijuana legalization and decriminalization will come into focus, as neighboring states continue to take action on this issue. The state’s staggering statistics around drunk driving should bring about a greater conversation about how to address that problem. Funding for public transportation alternatives – which Evers mentioned in his inaugural address but has not been a priority of this administration thusfar – will be an important topic. The list goes on.
Wisconsin state politics the decisions our leaders will be making will be as important as ever, and we’ll be watching every step of the way.
The Recombobulation Area is a reader-supported publication. To help fund our work covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin, become a paid subscriber.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.