Gov. Tony Evers pledged to spend more than half a billion dollars in the next state budget on workforce development, mental health care and PFAS treatment in his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday.
He also called for a dramatic change in the way the state funds local governments, a change he said would increase their funding by half a billion dollars each year.
It was Evers’ first State of the Union speech since being elected to a second term in November, and likely announces the spending priorities he will outline in his official budget proposal in February. But Evers, also a Democrat, will face the same GOP-led legislature that blocked much of his policy agenda in his first term, and it’s unclear how much he will achieve from that point of view.
Evers’ promises on Tuesday included $270 million to expand mental health care for Wisconsin students, $50 million in grants to small businesses, and $100 million to reduce PFAS in Wisconsin waterways — sometimes ” forever chemistry”.
These commitments are possible because of what Evers describes as a “historic” state surplus: an estimated $6.6 billion in state coffers. This is on top of roughly $1.7 billion in Wisconsin’s budget stabilization fund, also known as its rainy day fund.
Evers said, “Our state has never been in better financial shape than it is today.”
Evers also pledged to steer 20 percent of the state sales tax toward local governments for shared revenue. It has been a “top priority” of his administration and the largest source of state aid for local municipalities.
But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said he doesn’t want to see any changes to how the state funds municipalities unless local governments make changes to their own budgets.
The issue has been particularly acute in Milwaukee, where budget shortfalls mean major cuts to public services may be possible.
Also notable was something Evers didn’t address on Tuesday night: abortion access. He campaigned for re-election, in part, on the promise of helping repeal the state’s 1849 law that bans abortion statewide, which was upheld by the US Supreme Court last summer in Roe v. Wade. The overturn was triggered after the federal right to access abortion was abolished. While abortion access for Wisconsinites was a major theme of Evers’ inaugural address, he mentioned the topic only once in his state of the Union, saying he vetoed every anti-abortion bill brought in by the state’s Republicans. Had given.
That line received loud applause from Democrats in the audience.
Evers: 2023 is the ‘year of mental health’
Citing declines in young people’s mental health due to the pandemic, Evers declared that this year would be the “Year of Mental Health” and pledged $270 million to youth mental health.
Evers pledged to make permanent a pandemic-era initiative that earmarked millions in pandemic relief funds for public schools’ mental health services. Evers said the state would add $270 million to that initiative.
Evers cited a 2022 annual report from the state Office of Children’s Mental Health, which found that nearly one-third of Wisconsin children experience sadness and hopelessness almost every day.
“The state of mental health in Wisconsin is a quiet, rapidly growing crisis that I think will have devastating consequences for generations if we don’t treat it with the urgency we need,” Evers said.
This will be part of a total spending of nearly $500 million in mental health care across the state, Evers said, with a focus on making sure communities across the state have access to mental health professionals.
Sales Tax Revenue Could Go To Local Governments, PFAS Regulation
Evers described the allocation of state sales tax revenue to shared revenue for local communities as a bid to “find common ground”. He said this would raise about half a billion dollars per year.
Evers also suggested he might find common ground with Republicans in their fight to regulate the synthetic chemical PFAS. Found in household products such as fire-fighting foam and nonstick cookware, PFAS have been found at elevated levels in Wisconsin groundwater and Great Lakes fish.
But elected officials as well as environmental and industry groups have clashed over how best to regulate the chemical, even as Evers has sought to make its mitigation a hallmark of his administration. He said Tuesday that his administration would take a “three-pronged” approach to combating, responding to and raising awareness of PFAS contamination.
Editor’s Note: This story will be updated.