MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers is the first to admit that, after 40-plus years as an educator, he’s not going to be a leopard who changes his spots.
He’s passionate about schools at all levels because that’s where he spent his career before running for governor.
At the same time, Evers told a gathering of about 450 business leaders last week, he understands a vibrant economy supports improvements in education, health care and transportation – and the same is true in reverse.
“I, as governor, want you all to be successful. That’s the bottom line; if you’re successful then the people of the state of Wisconsin will be successful,” Evers told the annual economic forecast luncheon of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. “But there are certain things around issues of education, around transportation and health care and other issues, that will mean that we are going to find common ground.”
Finding “common ground” in an era of divided state government won’t be easy, as Republicans control both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. They signaled a short honeymoon with the Democratic governor during an extraordinary session that aimed to rein in his powers.
Still, those same Republicans can read public-opinion polls as well as anyone.
They understand the issues that propelled Evers to victory in November were health care, education and, to a lesser degree, transportation.
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The voters didn’t deliver an indictment of economic progress during former Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure, but a call for attention on other issues. Here’s how Evers positioned those topics with the intersection of economic prosperity.
Education: Evers called on business to help young people understand there are “multiple career pathways” to be pursued in Wisconsin. That could include more partnerships with schools, especially when it comes to internships and apprenticeships. “Workplace experience is transformative” for students, he said.
As state superintendent of public instruction for nearly 10 years, Evers served on the UW Board of Regents and the Wisconsin Technical College System board. “I believe they have been underfunded,” he said, which makes it harder for businesses to find the talented workers they need. Evers called out research and development, especially in the UW System, as a priority tied to the state’s entrepreneurial economy.
Health care: Evers described how he met during the campaign with a group of entrepreneurs in Milwaukee who talked about the lack of health-care coverage for their small companies. “I think that’s critical for the economy,” he said, noting that quality health care can help to attract and retain workers and firms.
Past federal rankings have consistently placed Wisconsin among the nation’s top four states based on more than 200 separate quality rankings, and slightly below average on overall costs. The challenge for Evers will be less about trying to remake the system than improving it for a broader range of citizens.
Transportation: “The present course the state is on is unsustainable,” Evers said, a reference to the stalemate over if and how Wisconsin can raise more revenue for road repairs and construction. “Transportation is an issue that can be solved,” he said. “The public want us to do so.”
Broadband: Robust connections to the Internet across Wisconsin are vital to the economy in rural Wisconsin, Evers said, because growth is slowed when businesses can’t easily reach markets that may lie far beyond their community.
Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.: Evers seemed to call something of a time-out on his campaign views of the WEDC, which he advocated disbanding. He’s met with WEDC Secretary Mark Hogan and signaled he will continue to do so, even if the Legislature installed nine-month “training wheels” in one of the extraordinary session bills.
Evers recognized there’s a need for privacy around competitive business deals negotiated by WEDC but called for more transparency in its reporting. However, he reminded the Legislature the office best able to “bring all of state government to bear on economic development” is his own and training wheels don’t help.
It may take time to find common ground, but that often begins with a few shovels of soil and turf at a time.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.