10 Questions for Candidates: Tony Evers

By David Callender

To inform voters ahead of the November election, we published a report in August looking at key issues in the state along with 10 questions for legislative and gubernatorial candidates. At the same time, WPF sent the 10 questions to the two major candidates for governor. On Sept. 22, we received answers from State Superintendent Tony Evers (D). On Oct. 22, the campaign of Governor Scott Walker (R) said it would not answer the questions.

What follows are the 10 questions and responses from Superintendent Evers, which have been edited only for consistency of style. We will promptly add answers from Governor Walker should they become available.

1) Wisconsin relies heavily on gas taxes and registration fees to fund transportation. With revenues from both sources growing slowly, what changes, if any, would you support to meet the state’s transportation needs? If you would not increase revenues, how would you reduce spending in order to adapt to more modest revenue growth?

Scott Walker’s approach to transportation has forced more than twenty counties and municipalities to pass wheel taxes, Wisconsin roads now rank 44th in the country, and more than 1,200 structurally deficient bridges carry almost three million cars daily. Running the state credit card and kicking the can down the road for another four years is not an option.

As governor, I will work across the aisle to pass a long-term, bipartisan solution to funding our roads, investing more in local road maintenance, and increasing support for public transit. For the past eight years, Scott Walker has drawn a line in the sand on transportation funding. That’s not leadership.

I’ve said all along that all reasonable options are on the table for increasing revenue, but we have to find a solution that works for everyone. For that to happen, we have to get everyone to the table and foreclosing options before anyone ever has a chance to sit down doesn’t foster the spirit of compromise or collaboration. “My way or the highway” hasn’t worked for the past eight years on transportation, and that’s not how I’m going to govern as governor.

2) A growing number of local governments have turned to “wheel taxes” to fund their transportation programs. Do you support their ability to do so, or do you favor restrictions on these fees? Would you favor alternative local revenue options instead of, or in addition to, wheel taxes, such as local gas or sales taxes?

For the past eight years, we’ve had no long-term solution to our transportation fund crisis. Consequently, taxpayers across Wisconsin have had no choice but to turn to wheel taxes so they can afford to pick up the state’s tab. And this is the case for education, too – more than one million Wisconsinites have voted to raise their own property taxes to support their local schools. This just isn’t sustainable.

The transportation fund crisis at the state level has left rural roads and southeastern freeway projects shortchanged, over budget, and behind schedule. We need a governor who won’t keep passing the buck. As governor, as I mentioned above, all reasonable options are on the table for revenue options. The bottom line is that our local governments shouldn’t be forced to go to these measures just for regular road maintenance. We have to have a funding plan at the state level that invests in local road projects, repairs broken bridges, expands public transit and multimodal commuting, and restores regional transit authority to local governments.

3) What policies should the state pursue to attract and retain the employees needed to maintain Wisconsin’s workforce over the next 20 years, or how should Wisconsin prepare instead for a smaller, older workforce?

Scott Walker put giving $4.5 billion to a foreign corporation before Wisconsin companies and Main Street businesses that support local economies and provide good-paying, family-supporting jobs that are essential for attracting young professionals and retaining Wisconsin employees.

As governor, I will invest in small businesses, local companies, and entrepreneurship to create middle-class jobs and grow the economy. Wisconsin currently ranks last in small business creation, which is where most family-supporting jobs are created. I will disband WEDC, replace it with a state agency that’s accountable to Wisconsin taxpayers, and redirect our economic development funding into regional and local efforts that support Main Street businesses and work to build an economy that works for everyone.

Young professionals and their families care deeply about their quality of life, wonderful education, and great recreational opportunities. As governor, I will increase our investment in education, including starting kids off right with strong early childhood programs, fully funding well-rounded K-12 public schools, and reinvesting in higher education. I will restore Wisconsin’s commitment to state parks, clean water, safe roads, and affordable housing, and expand broadband access in rural areas.

4) Given our recent research showing that, in general, the growth in Wisconsin’s economy has been uneven, what steps would you take to promote development in areas that have seen the slowest growth, particularly rural and northern Wisconsin?

The farms and forests of rural Wisconsin are a core part of our identity. The health and prosperity of agricultural industries are directly tied to the success of Wisconsin’s economy – when agriculture and family farms suffer, our economy suffers.

In Walker’s Wisconsin, families are leaving our rural counties and we are losing more than one dairy farm every day. Some dairy farms are even resorting to GoFundMe to raise money just so they can make ends meet, and in western Wisconsin, our rate of farm bankruptcies is the highest in the nation.

As governor, I will re-invest in diversified agriculture, value-added farm products and food processing, and farm product marketing to keep family farms strong. Additionally, I will support policies to encourage farm operators and third-party system operators to invest in small and mid-scale producer-owned solar and wind power, creating clean power and stimulating rural economies. Finally, through robust investments and partnerships, I will dramatically improve broadband internet access in rural and underserved areas.

5) Should the current general aids system for K-12 schools be changed? To what extent should funding increases for per pupil categorical aids continue as well, or should future increases be directed toward general aids versus per pupil categorical aids?

Since Walker took office, more than one million Wisconsinites have voted to increase their property taxes to pay for their public schools. My state budget proposal fixes our broken school funding formula, provides an extra lift to the students who need it, and holds the line on property taxes statewide by focusing on:

  • Funding fairness, by providing revenue limit equity for low spending districts and weighting for low-income students;
  • Thawing the decade-long freeze on primary special education aid, because the state cannot abandon its commitment to every student succeeding;
  • Expanding 4-year-old-kindergarten to full day, because early learning is the best support we can provide a child;
  • Investing in student mental health and after-school programming, because students’ social and emotional well-being impact their grades and likelihood to graduate; and
  • Making a historic investment in urban excellence, to expand summer school, retain the best educators, boost early learning, and fund community collaboration.

The legislature, regardless of party control, has adopted several of my recommendations, like expanding sparsity aid for rural districts, increasing funds for summer school, and upping the reimbursement for transportation. However, if the legislature had adopted my last four budgets, district revenue limits would be over $1,600 more per student, without any referenda.

6) Should state funding for the UW System budget increase and, if so, by how much? Where should this additional funding come from?

Historically, the University of Wisconsin System has been the crown jewel of higher education. Unfortunately, that’s changed under Scott Walker. Walker has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the UW System, state contributions have declined, faculty have been fleeing for other institutions, universities are dropping majors, and the Board of Regents has become more ideological and politicized than ever.

Budgets are about priorities. My priority is to fully fund public education at every level, and I’m prepared to make tough decisions as governor to ensure we’re doing what’s best for our kids. As governor, I will reverse the trends of the past eight years and increase investments in both our technical schools and the UW System. We have to fully fund UW’s tuition freeze and work to make higher education more affordable for everyone. Moreover, Wisconsin’s 800,000 graduates with nearly $19 billion in existing student loan debt must be able to refinance at lower rates just like we do with a mortgage.

7) Would you support modifications to existing levy limits to give municipalities and counties greater flexibility, or do you support them in their current form to curb growth in property taxes?

As state superintendent, I am deeply familiar with school revenue limits and property tax restrictions. We’ve made it nearly impossible for municipalities and counties to fund local priorities without relying on revenue sources like wheel taxes, and this approach isn’t sustainable. For most local governments, revenue controls do not keep pace with inflation, and certainly do not keep pace with the cost to continue providing existing services.

Local government leaders have proposed technical and substantive reforms that deserve legislative consideration as part of a comprehensive reform package. In particular, policy makers should evaluate flexibility for smaller communities with limited economies of scale, ensure revenue authority is commensurate with state requirements, and be responsive to the changing economy and economic downturns.

Additionally, as governor, I would close the dark store loophole, which allows big box stores to compare themselves to vacant lots for tax purposes so they can pay less. This hurts local communities by shifting tax burden to small business and homeowners, who already pay almost seventy percent of property taxes. Closing these loopholes will protect Wisconsin families without raising taxes or generating more revenue for local government.

8) What, if any, additional revenue options should be available to the city and county of Milwaukee and other local governments in Wisconsin? If no new revenue sources are allowed, should the state help Milwaukee manage its public safety costs and Milwaukee County its infrastructure needs?

In addition to what I mentioned above regarding revenue sources, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin is one of the only states whose largest city has the same tax structure as all other municipalities. Furthermore, state aid has been significantly cut over the past 20 years. Milwaukee’s success is Wisconsin’s success.

As governor, I will support working on a bipartisan solution to address Milwaukee’s growing revenue problems. Milwaukee needs flexibility in managing its own finances and needs an equitable contribution from the state that reflects its size, contribution to Wisconsin’s economy, and role as Wisconsin’s largest city.

9) Given the state’s advances in lowering its overall tax burden, do you think additional progress needs to be made in this area, and, if so, how would you achieve it? Would you support changes in the state’s current tax structure to promote greater balance and equity or other goals?

It is staggering that over 870,000 families cannot afford basic necessities like food, rent, health-care, and transportation. We have to do better, and we need a governor who will put the people of Wisconsin before their own personal, political ambitions and special interests. Under Scott Walker, we’ve given away millions in taxpayer dollars in tax breaks for big corporations, like the Manufacturing & Agriculture tax break that is projected to deliver a total $22 million to just 11 multimillionaires. Wisconsin’s working families need a tax system and structure that works for all of us, not just Scott Walker’s wealthy campaign donors.

As governor, I would support a fair tax system and oppose the ongoing shift of taxes from large corporations to homeowners by:

  • Closing the “Dark Store loophole, which lets big box store corporations unfairly shift their part of their tax burden, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the tab;
  • Ending the Manufacturing & Agriculture tax, which is projected to give away $22 million in tax breaks to 11 mega-millionaires without having to create a single job; and
  • Restoring 2/3rd state funding for our schools and increasing aids to local governments, which lowers property taxes while preserving services.

10) Although Wisconsin’s fund balance has improved in recent years, its reserves to weather financial downturns still remain behind many other states, a situation that leaves it vulnerable to higher-than-predicted costs or lower-than-expected revenue. What, if anything, would you do to even out this boom-or-bust budgeting cycle and build up the state’s reserves?

Under Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s total general fund reserves would last the state just 18.4 days, which is 37% below the 50-state average. Not only has Scott Walker has neglected to build up our budget stabilization fund balance, he specifically exempted the state from making contributions during periods of budget surpluses.

Wisconsin needs to be better prepared to weather economic storms. I support fully funding our budget stabilization fund and making it one of the strongest in the country. Unlike Scott Walker, I strongly oppose spending taxpayer surpluses on election-year gimmicks, instead of thoughtfully and strategically planning for our future.