Like many other events in the wake of COVID-19, this year’s State of State looked much different. For the first time in state history, Democratic Governor Tony Evers gave the annual address virtually, starting his speech with some lightheartedness on the situation.
“Tonight’s speech will take a heckuva lot less time and since you’re watching at home, you can be as rowdy as you’d like from the comfort of your couch,” he said.
But soon after, Ever’s dedicated his address to the more than 5,000 Wisconsinites who have died because of COVID-19, asking for a moment of silence.
“They were firefighters, healthcare workers, nuns, educators, entrepreneurs, community pillars, students, veterans, volunteers, bird watchers, card players, and Packers, Brewers, and Bucks fans,” said Evers. “They were moms and dads, brothers and sisters, friends, and coworkers, and they are loved and missed by many.”
Evers went on about how the pandemic disrupted many actions he had called for in his 2020 address, such as tackling the state’s dairy crisis and increasing funds for rural schooling. But, he said, the pandemic required urgent steps.
In another first for a State of the State address, Evers then showed a video compilation of the past year, featuring news clips and statements from Evers. It showed some of the biggest moments in news for the year, such as the April primary, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and Wisconsin becoming part of the epicenter of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
And the selected clips were heavily critical of Republicans, focusing on the lack of action by the State Assembly and Senate. Later on in the address, while speaking on unemployment, Evers tackled that point head on.
“This past year brought to bear the inaction of my predecessors and members of this and previous legislatures who avoided their responsibility and duty for far too long,” he said. “Well, I’ll tell you this: it’s gone on long enough. It ends tonight.”
Evers also commended the sacrifices and perseverance of Wisconsinites before moving on to highlight 3 policy agendas for his administration in 2021: rural broadband, fixing the unemployment system, and redistricting.
First, on his agenda, internet access. Ever’s delcared 2021 “the Year of Broadband Access.” He says the pandemic has brought to light the digital divide across Wisconsin in internet access, and plans to invest $200 million in broadband for the upcoming biennial budget – f5 times the amount in the past 3 state budgets combined.
Second, unemployment. Evers addressed the massive increase in unemployment claims this past year. The Department of Workforce Development has handled 8.8 million claims since last March – that’s more than the 7.2 claims from 2016 to 2019 combined.
Evers called our current unemployment system antiquated, and blamed both Republicans and Democrats from previous administrations for failing to solve the issue. He made a call to action to the Wisconsin Legislature.
“I’m announcing today I will be calling a special session of the Legislature to take up a plan to modernize our unemployment system and help ensure nothing like this happens to the people of Wisconsin again,” he said.
Legislative Republicans responded to that claim today, saying Evers already has the tools to fix backed-up unemployment at his disposal.
Third and last, redistricting and gerrymandering. Evers emphasized the People’s Maps Commission, a nonpartisan committee in charge of redistricting Wisconsin’s congressional map – should be the one’s determining the map used. He said he will prevent the Legislature from destroying records of the map-drawing process and keep the process in the public’s view.
“Folks, it’s time we look to the people, not politicians, to draw maps that are fair and impartial,” he said.
Political lines will indeed be redrawn this year, which follows the census every ten years. In 2011, Wisconsin redistricting went all to the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the maps drawn by Republican lawmakers. It’s likely the maps this year will also be litigated.
Directly after Governor Evers’ half-hour address, the Republicans took their turn for the Reaction to the State of State. In what seemed to be an effort to show sharp contrast with Evers virtual address, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos chose to have his speech live in the State Assembly – unmasked – with a crowd of GOP lawmakers cheering at least 13 times in the short 15 minute speech.
Vos repeatedly placed blame on the Evers administration for a lack of action on unemployment, COVID-19 response, and lowering taxes.
Vos called the unemployment issues a failure not of ancient system, but a lack of leadership by the Evers. He said the Governor’s administration owes people still waiting for unemployment an apology.
And on COVID-19, Vos claimed there was no sense of urgency by the Evers admin, and said Wisconsin is severely lacking in vaccination plans compared to other states.
“Governor Evers, do your job!” said Vos to loud applause from GOP lawmakers.
However, the State legislature has not passed a COVID-19 relief bill since April of last year, and stymied the public health efforts of Evers. Just moments later in his speech, Vos promised that the Republican Assembly would fight against measures to require vaccinations.
“We won’t let anyone mandate vaccinations on our citizens,” said Vos.
Vos also said Republicans would fight to bring kids back to school even in the midst of the pandemic. He went on to include a list of traditional conservative actions as part of their goals for the year, such as promoting school choice, limiting welfare, and cutting taxes. And Vos made it appear certain the Republicans would continue to gridlock legislation unless their demands are met.
“We will continue to work to reach a consensus as equals, but we will never compromise our conservative ideals in the name of political expediency,” he said to more applause.
Before adjourning for the night, Republicans also made sure to pass one piece of legislation – a resolution to honor the tenure and service of Speaker Robin Vos as longest serving Assembly Speaker.
An today, Republicans rejected Gov Ever’s call for a special session on unemployment, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.