Gov. Tony Evers announced new education and mental health spending initiatives during his fourth annual “State of the State” address Tuesday night.
During the address, Evers unveiled his “Get Kids Ahead” initiative to address mental health issues in Wisconsin’s public schools. His proposal allocates $15 million for direct mental health care, additional mental health staff and other student wellbeing programs in K-12 schools. Each public school district can opt-in to the proposed funds.
“We know this pandemic has affected our kids in more ways than one, including their mental health,” Evers said in his address. “A kid who’s in crisis isn’t going to be able to pay attention at school, finish their homework or engage with their friends or teachers.”
Evers also announced new funding for UW System institutions, citing a 55% increase in UW counseling service use and high rates of student psychological distress. The funding includes $5 million for additional virtual counseling and mental health support staff and $25 million to extend the UW System’s in-state student tuition freeze through June 2023.
In a tweet shortly after the address, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she welcomed Evers’ investments in higher education.
“UW is poised to be an engine for our recovery and maintain our commitment to provide affordable education to WI residents,” Blank said.
Wisconsin’s budget surplus also took center stage in Tuesday’s address. Last month, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated Wisconsin’s budget surplus would reach $3.8 billion by the end of the current budget cycle, an amount double the size of the state’s current $1.7 billion “rainy day” fund.
Evers sees the surplus as a chance to invest in state tax relief and public education. He reiterated his spending proposal Tuesday, which includes a $150 refund for each Wisconsinite, $130 million in child and caregiver tax credits, $180 million for property tax assistance and $750 million for public schools. His proposal leaves $2 million of the surplus untouched.
The governor plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday calling for a special session of the Legislature to address the surplus.
“There’s no reason we can’t do this, and the rising costs Wisconsinites are seeing every day are every reason that we should,” Evers said. “So, let’s find common ground, let’s pass this plan and let’s get this done.”
However, Republicans indicated Tuesday they plan to immediately adjourn the session without discussing the budget surplus.
A cold reception
Evers’ proposals received a chilly reception from Republicans, who remained silent for most of the governor’s address.
In the Republican response, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) accused Evers of “weak leadership” while taking credit for the state’s rosy financial situation.
“Ultimately, Gov. Evers abandoned his own unrealistic budgets and followed our lead by signing our responsible budgets,” LeMahieu said. “We provided the strong leadership Wisconsin needed, and Gov. Evers followed.”
Republicans criticized Evers for focusing on the wrong issues, claiming their “Parental Bill of Rights” for greater curriculum transparency and school choice was a top priority for Wisconsin and deserves more attention.
“Parents are demanding better from their schools, but Gov. Evers has called our parental empowerment bills ‘radical’ and pledged to veto them,” LeMahieu said in response to Evers’ speech. “The problems facing our state continue to fester because of Tony Evers’ veto pen.”
LeMahieu’s response also addressed pandemic-era voting, a process he says was abused by “ballot harvesting, drop boxes, Zuckerbucks and the lawlessness of some at the Wisconsin Elections Commission.”
However, Democrats believe GOP priorities are holding back their vision. In an interview with The Daily Cardinal, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said Republicans “must have heard something different” from Evers if they could not understand his investments in Wisconsin’s economy despite voting rights and COVID-19 challenges.
Evers also commented on the pandemic throughout his speech, citing its effects on Wisconsin families as justification for his proposed tax relief and mental health resource expansion programs. He mourned the 11,637 Wisconsinites who lost their lives and expressed gratitude for the Wisconsin National Guard’s emergency health care assistance, but believes the state still emerged stronger from the pandemic than before.
“I am proud to be able to report that the state of our state is stronger and better than it was a year ago, or two years ago or even three years ago.”
Tyler Katzenberger is the State News Editor at The Daily Cardinal. He has covered numerous protests and written state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.