Gov. Tony Evers declared a “year of mental health” during his fifth State of the State address Tuesday evening in a speech outlining a flurry of investment in education, workforce development and state welfare programs.
Evers opened Tuesday’s State of the State with his usual grandfatherly excitement as he announced “It’s good to be back!” to the crowd gathered in the Assembly chambers. The rest of his speech focused on the success of his administration over the last four years and ambitious proposals for Wisconsin’s record budget surplus of approximately $7 billion.
“I am proud to report to you tonight that in 175 years of statehood, our state has never been in a better fiscal position than it is today,” Evers said.
He went on to advocate for expanding state social welfare programs for small businesses, workforce retention and child care programs to keep Wisconsin’s economy growing and curb the state’s “brain drain” of young, educated workers.
“We can continue our progress making the wise investments we’ve long needed to — and not because anyone wants to make government bigger, but because Wisconsinites want a government that works, and works better,” Evers said.
Evers spent ample time restating his commitment to increasing funding for public schools and vetoing any abortion bills on his desk that would not overturn Wisconsin’s 1849 abortion ban. However, the Democratic governor made no mention of marijuana legalization, an issue that has been discussed in the last few weeks.
Evers instead focused his address on four main areas — mental health, infrastructure, workforce development and tax revenue.
Evers declared 2023 “The Year of Mental Health” as a way to affirm his commitment to curbing the mental health crisis in Wisconsin. Approximately one third of Wisconsin youth face feelings of “sadness and hopelessness” nearly every day and more than half report anxiety, according to the Office of Children’s Mental Health’s 2022 Annual Report.
“The state of mental health in Wisconsin is a quiet, burgeoning crisis that I believe will have catastrophic consequences for generations if we don’t treat it with the urgency it requires,” he said.
His plans for addressing this crisis included investing $30 million of pandemic-related federal funds into new mental health resources in schools and $500 million from the state budget into behavioral health resources for adults around the state.
“We cannot look back two years from now as we prepare the next budget and wonder whether we should’ve done more and sooner to take good care of our mental health,” he added.
Evers mentioned Tuesday that, four years ago, Wisconsin’s roads and bridges were in “disrepair.”
Throughout his speech, he focused on his administration’s efforts to repair the state's physical infrastructure and increase access to high-speed internet.
“We’ve gotten to work fixing the darn roads," Evers said, adding that his administration has repaired over 5,000 miles of roads and 1,600 bridges throughout the state. “More than 387,000 homes and businesses will have new or improved access to reliable, high-speed internet, and I want to double that number by the end of this term.”
Evers also announced millions of dollars for workforce innovation during his speech. His proposals called for expanding access to jobs and diminishing barriers that keep people from long-term careers.
“We need to bolster the middle class; we need to maintain our economy’s momentum, and we need to reduce barriers to work and recruit and retain talent to address our state’s workforce challenges,” Evers said.
Proposals included $10 million for initiatives to retain and attract worker talent in the state, $20 million toward teacher and school employee recruitment and development and a $50 million investment to bolster the state's healthcare workforce.
Beyond recruitment, Evers proposed investments in programs to expand public transportation for workers and expand access to childcare providers through employers.
Evers also talked about tax reform in regards to Wisconsin’s historic budget surplus.
He proposed a budget provision that would send up to 20% of state sales tax revenue back into communities for shared revenue and heralded his administration's tax cuts for the middle class. However, he specified that he doesn’t believe in large tax cuts for the wealthiest 20% of earners, referencing Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu’s proposal to move Wisconsin to a flat income tax rate of 3.25%.
Evers described creating tax cuts for the wealthy as “reckless.”
“Spending billions on a flat tax isn’t a workforce plan or an economic development plan,” he added.
Republicans decry liberal spending
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) responded to Evers’ speech Thursday night by taking questions from reporters after the event.
“This is typical Tony Evers, very liberal, a little bit more than he knows Republicans would ever accept,” Vos said when asked for his thoughts about the speech.
He went on to explain that he feels Evers’ proposals would increase government size and spending more than he would like.
He also made specific comments on taxes — an issue he felt deserved more of the spotlight.
“Evers spent so little time talking about tax reform. Almost the entire speech was about spending, one government program or another — my focus is on how we are going to reduce taxes by the most that we can afford to also invest in,” said Vos.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:24 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 25 to reflect updates in Wisconsin's state budget surplus estimate.
Gabriella Hartlaub is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in state politics and life & style reporting.