'Poised to do better things:' Gov. Evers says he's a work in progress entering 2nd year

MADISON — Former school teacher and state education secretary Tony Evers isn't ready to give himself a grade on his first year as Wisconsin's governor.

“Incomplete,” Evers said during a wide-ranging interview that looked back at his first year in office and ahead to 2020. “After four years, I'll be glad to offer A through F, but at this point it's incomplete.”

Evers' first year was marked by partisan disagreements with Republicans who control the Legislature, and although he and his fellow Democrats have registered some victories, little headway was made on many substantive issues.

“I think we made good progress where we're poised to do better things in the future," he said.

Evers took office in January after defeating two-term Republican incumbent Scott Walker. But Republicans maintained their majorities in the Legislature, creating a recipe for gridlock that proved largely to be true. Republicans started by cutting Evers' powers during a lame-duck legislative session before he even took office. Most major Democratic proposals have been stymied, and Republicans have described themselves as serving as a “goalkeeper” to block Evers' agenda.

Still, Evers did sign a budget that hit many of his top priorities and campaign promises. He increased funding for schools and the University of Wisconsin, and put more money into roads and health care, but far less than what he wanted. He also cut middle class taxes by 10%, which Republicans strongly supported.

He cited the enactment of the budget as a highlight, calling it a “down payment on the future.”

“We set a high bar,” Evers said. “We had some success in getting there.”

Many other issues are going nowhere.

Bipartisan bills that would legalize medical marijuana have stalled, as have Democratic efforts to expand Medicaid, address the “dark store” loophole, a property tax issue that's important to local governments, and institute new gun control measures. Evers tried to force Republicans to debate universal gun background checks and a “red flag” law that would give judges the power to take guns from people determined to be a risk to themselves or others, but Republicans didn't even debate the measures before adjourning a special session Evers called.

Their discord also showed up in the usually routine matter of confirming Cabinet secretaries, those who lead state agencies and work closely with the governor. Republicans rejected Evers' choice for the state agriculture department, in part because of his push to institute divisive, tougher siting rules designed to protect farmers' neighbors from the stench of manure. It was the first time the Senate had rejected a Cabinet pick since at least the 1980s.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said it's possible the Senate may adjourn for the year without voting on some of Ever's Cabinet picks.

The Senate fired Evers' agriculture secretary the same week it took no action on the gun bills during the special session. Evers showed his anger, lashing out at Republicans in comments to reporters laced with four-letter words.

Evers tried to force Republicans to release money to combat homelessness in December, but they refused.

While Evers refused to give himself a grade on his first year, legislative leaders were happy to.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos gave him a C, while he said the budget was worthy of an A-minus.

“C is average, right?” Vos said. “You know, in many ways I feel like it's incomplete because I haven't seen a whole lot of proposals from him. But I would say average.”

Fitzgerald declined to give Evers a grade, but he was critical of how the governor worked with lawmakers.

“It's been kind of a rocky road,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Democrats were more generous.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling gave Evers a B. Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz gave Evers an A-minus, although he said many of Evers' victories — like flying a gay pride flag over the Capitol for the first time — were symbolic.

Hintz praised Evers for trying to govern from the center. That's a break from Walker, who Hintz said was “political 24-7."

“I think it comes across as authentic,” Hintz said of Evers. “Some of the victories have been symbolic, but I've appreciated his willingness to speak out on issues.”

Evers rejected the notion his victories were symbolic, specifically citing funding increases for schools, roads and health care included in the state budget as substantial.

Those “would not have happened if I wasn't sitting in this office,” Evers said. “And all you do is you have to do is walk down the street and walk around the state and talk to people in the schools and ask them if they got a better deal under me than Scott Walker.”