The Republican-crafted 2021-23 state budget—with a $2.3 billion income tax cut and $574 million to control property taxes that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had to sign into law—split the 50 Democratic legislators in interesting ways.
Three of the 12 Democratic senators and four of the 38 Assembly Democrats voted for the Republicans’ budget. They were the first bipartisan budget votes in 14 years.
Republicans control the Senate by a 31-12 margin; the Assembly, 61-38. Their income tax cut and property tax controls will be a centerpiece of their 2022 campaigns.
Of Democrats who voted for the budget, six of them won their seats with victory margins of 52% or less, and six will be up for reelection in 16 months.
When Democratic legislators publicly condemned the GOP budget, they said they hoped Evers could rewrite it with vetoes. He didn’t; 48 of his 50 vetoes changed minor provisions in the Republicans’ spending plan.
His two vetoes of consequence—delaying a $550 million payment from state government’s checking account to the rainy-day fund and killing new paycheck withholding tables to reflect the income tax cut—provided no political cover from Democrats who had to decide whether or not to vote for their opponents’ budget.
Republicans said Evers, up for reelection next year, had no choice but to sign their budget.
Evers “got boxed into a corner and, rather than fight for his unpopular (February) budget and risk a political knockout, he and his team threw in the towel and signed our responsible budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu.
Let’s break the 50 Democratic legislators into four categories.
Democrats who voted for the budget: Senate Democratic Leader Janet Bewley of Mason was elected in 2018 with 51% of the vote. She was joined by Democratic Sens. Brad Pfaff of La Crosse, who got 50.3% of the vote last November, and Jeff Smith of Eau Claire, whose 2018 winning margin was 51.6%.
In the Assembly, voting for the budget was first-term Democratic Rep. Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay, who won with 51.6% of the vote last year. She was joined by Beth Meyers of Bayfield, who got 51.4% of the vote; Steve Doyle of Onalaska, 52.4%, and Don Vruwink of Milton, 55.3%
Andraca and Smith got photo-op bonuses for their votes when the governor came to their districts to sign the Republicans’ budget.
Democrats who voted no who had close races last November: Four Assembly Democrats won with less than 55% of the vote, so Republicans consider them vulnerable over their budget votes.
They are first-term Rep. Sarah Rodriquez of Brookfield, whose winning margin was 50.7%; Nick Milroy of Superior, 50.2%; and Robyn Vining of Wauwatosa and Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh, who both got 54% of the vote.
Democrats who voted no who won with margins of more than 55%: Two Democratic senators—La Tonya Johnson of Milwaukee and Melissa Agard of Madison—and 24 Assembly Democrats who had Republican challengers last November won with margins that ranged up to 88%.
Democrats who voted no who ran unopposed or had only third-party challengers: Ten Democrats—three in the Senate and seven in the Assembly—from safe seats in Milwaukee or Madison had no Republican opponent in November.
One Democrat who voted no said there was “not much communication” between the governor’s office and Democratic legislators after the Joint Finance Committee put the budget in its final form.
“To be honest, (communication) wasn’t necessary,” the Democrat said. “It was clear what was going to happen.”
At one point, Evers threatened to veto the entire Republican-crafted budget.
One Democrat who voted no on the budget said, “I don’t think a veto was seriously considered. If that was an option, (Evers) would have had to push much harder over the winter/spring. ... He never really drew a line in the sand.
“It’s hard to veto if you haven’t made the public case for it beforehand.”
One of the most surprising quotes came from Bewley, who represents northwest Wisconsin and who is up for election next year, after she voted for the budget: “Some of us have to pay attention to our districts.”
Wait. Doesn’t the civics-textbook definition of a democracy say every legislator’s first obligation is paying attention to their district?