Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers spoke positively about the direction the state is headed during a visit to La Crosse Monday, emphasizing the groundwork being laid to protect key industries in the state.
But a crucial point he drove home was in keeping Wisconsin a place where people want to live.
“That’s the thing that keeps me awake at night more than anything else,” Evers said of the state’s declining population and loss of young, educated adults.
Speaking to the La Crosse Area Development Corp. and the La Crosse Tribune Editorial Board, Evers said keeping young people in the state is one of the most important things for the state’s success, and if not addressed could be “devastating to our economy.”
Wisconsin has been among the top 10 “brain drain” states since 1980, according to a 2019 study from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. It means Wisconsin is losing more residents annually than it is adding or maintaining, specifically those who have earned degrees here.
“We’re an aging population. We’re a stagnant population. I think if we don’t do something soon,” Evers said of the brain drain, “we’ll be a declining population.”
So what will keep people wanting to live in Wisconsin? Evers said it’s through embracing diversity and maintaining the symbiotic relationship Wisconsinites have with its foundational industries, such as dairy.
“Wisconsin is looking different than it has before — it doesn’t look like me,” Evers said, “and we have to value that.”
But just as keeping people here will be crucial to protecting the state’s economy, like protecting Mexican immigrants who make up a good portion of dairy industry workers in Wisconsin, the state’s industries are significant to drawing people here as well, Evers said.
“People make decisions like that based on the quality of life, and that is around schools and health care and roads,” he said of people deciding to become Wisconsinites. “We need to continue to improve those areas in order to keep people here ... having young people say this is a good place to live and work.”
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Evers said the state has a chance to show the rest of the country its appeal this summer when it hosts the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. The event is expected to bring roughly 50,000 people to the southeastern region and is a platform that Wisconsinites shouldn’t waste.
“We have an opportunity, a freebie frankly, to sell Wisconsin to the rest of the country,” he said. “And I feel good about it. I think we have a good story to tell.”
The governor discussed a wide range of other topics, such as late-night euchre tournaments, during his stop in La Crosse, including:
Farm bills: Evers called a special legislative session for Tuesday to bring up eight new bills that would address the farming crisis in America’s Dairyland. He remains hopeful that bipartisanship will get the bills passed, varying from mental-health services for local farmers and expediting getting products into homes.
Fair maps: On Monday, Evers signed an executive order creating a new commission dedicated to creating fair legislative maps. The group will be nonpartisan and will visit each voting district during the next year, using census information to create new maps as early as next March. Evers hopes the new maps will be adopted, saying “clearly the maps are drawn in a way that isn’t reflective of what the people want.”
Clean water legislation: New legislation drawn up by Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling and Rep. Jill Billings, both D-La Crosse, would require the DNR to report any spills that would compromise Wisconsin’s drinking water. Evers said it was a good next step to protecting Wisconsin’s drinking water, an issue that he believes “transcends anything else.”
Climate change: The rapidly changing climate in the state remains a top priority for Evers, but he said a lot of it is in the federal government’s hands. A task force has been headed by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and the state’s hoping to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finetune preparations and response-times for flooding, especially in the Driftless Region.
High-speed rail: The governor of Minnesota recently showed interest in creating a high speed rail connecting La Crosse to Minneapolis, an opportunity that Evers said he is open to. He thanked Minnesota for continuing the conversation of high-speed rail across the Upper Midwest, one that he said was “toxic” during Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure.
Foxconn: The project in southeastern Wisconsin is still a go, according to Evers, but less manufacturing jobs will be created than promised. He is still rooting for its success, he said.
Student debt: The state continues to tackle the student debt crisis, and hopes to have new legislation that aims to chip away at the issue statewide in the next budget.
Vaping: A piece of technology that was designed to help people quit smoking is driving them to it instead, Evers believes. A former smoker himself, he said new regulations are needed in the state to protect the younger generation that has accepted vaping head-on.
Criminal-justice reform: The governor noted that the Wisconsin criminal-justice system is still “disappointing” to him, adding that the state is spending more on incarceration than the University of Wisconsin System. He is hopeful he can find bipartisanship to gain solutions for a fair and non-discriminatory system soon.
"We're an aging population. We're a stagnant population. I think if we don't do something soon, we'll be a declining population."
Gov. Tony Evers