WALTERS: Governing slows Evers campaign promises

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There won't be any major announcement of a long-range highway funding deal today - Inauguration Day - despite what Democrat Tony Evers said before the Nov. 6 election for governor he won.

And, the "middle class" income tax cut Evers promised before the election won't start until January 2020, so taxpayers won't get help until they file their taxes for that year in spring 2021.

And, dissolving and replacing state government's jobs agency, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), won't be part of the 2019-21 budget Evers introduces in a few weeks. Evers promised during the campaign to get rid of WEDC.

And, the first Evers budget won't call for ending the Choice program that lets students statewide attend private schools at state expense - a program Evers, teachers and teachers' unions have opposed since it started in Milwaukee in the 1990s.

Evers, the 66-year-old superintendent of public instruction, will be sworn in as Wisconsin's 46th governor today. He'll be only the third Democratic governor since 1982.

But Evers has learned that running for governor is much easier than doing the job. Campaign promises often have to be watered down, delayed or abandoned in the face of on-the-job realities.

Take the transportation funding impasse, for example.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker ignored years of calls for more taxes or new highway revenues to close the gap between needs and income - a gap that led to more borrowing.

During the campaign, Walker again promised to veto any gas tax or registration fee increase to close that funding gap.

For his part, Evers would only say during the campaign that "everything is on the table" to pay for highways - a vague phrase that Walker warned signaled a huge tax increase.

But Evers also said he wanted to announce a funding plan on Inauguration Day, only to concede last week that he doesn't - yet - have any plan to announce.

Instead, Evers wants Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association, and his choice to be secretary of the state Department of Transportation (DOT), to broker that compromise.

"There's nobody in the state that knows more about transportation policy, and the options available, than Craig Thompson," Evers said in a WisconsinEye interview. "He's worked on both sides of the aisle."

But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who must schedule Thompson's confirmation vote, said some Republican senators can't forget that Thompson pushed to raise taxes to pay for highways.

"I have heard serious concerns over [Evers] appointing a provocative figure to head DOT who is a long-time advocate for special interests," Fitzgerald said.

"Governor-elect Evers would be better served by nominating someone who worked in a less controversial role during previous policy debates."

Evers predicted that the Senate will confirm Thompson. The governor has no plans to name anyone else to run DOT.

Asked about Fitzgerald's criticism, Evers said, "It's a new day. We have to kind of set things aside and move forward."

Still, the timeline for Evers to recommend a highway funding plan moved from Jan. 7 to his state budget address, now planned for late February or early March.

In that WisconsinEye interview, Evers also said he and his aides now plan to recommend that the "middle class" tax cut that he announced before the election not become law until Jan. 1, 2020.

When candidate Evers announced the tax cut, he didn't mention that it may not help taxpayers until spring 2021 - more than two years after he took office.

And, although Evers campaigned on breaking up WEDC, he said his first state budget won't call for replacing it with a new agency that puts more emphasis on regional economic development.

Evers said he'll live with the "hot mess" change in how WEDC is governed approved during the Legislature's lame-duck session: Lawmakers will have control of WEDC's board, and who runs the agency, until September.

"We need to get this nine-month thing done," Evers said.

Finally, although Evers, Democratic legislators and teachers' unions have opposed Choice for decades, the governor-elect said his first budget won't try to kill it. Instead, Evers said, every homeowner's property tax bill should show how much Choice costs their local school district.

"We've got 30,000-plus kids in [Choice]," Evers said. Killing it "can't happen - and I've never said that it can happen."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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