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Gov. Tony Evers outlined a largely liberal agenda in his second inaugural address Tuesday, calling for overturning an 1849 state law banning abortions, expanding Medicaid coverage and legalizing marijuana.
While he called for working together on the priorities he outlined, many of the issues have long divided Democrats and Republicans. The GOP returns this session with even larger majorities in the state Legislature, and the Senate Republican leader called Evers’ speech disappointing and “highly partisan.”
Evers and other constitutional officers elected in November took their oaths of office Tuesday during a day thick on pomp and thin on substance.
Evers, speaking in the state Capitol Rotunda, said his reelection win two months ago served as a rejection of “the bitter politics of resentment.”
“Given the opportunity to retreat into division and doubt, Wisconsin chose a future of unity and faith,” Evers said. “Given the opportunity to further enable cynicism and hate, Wisconsinites chose kindness, and they chose hope instead.”
Republican legislative leaders faulted Evers for delivering a speech they said was too partisan.
“He talked about working together, but all of his ideas were highly partisan issues that he brought up,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said. “So I’m not sure how that’s that’s actually working together.”
Evers on Tuesday renewed his push for legal abortions by undoing a 174-year-old state ban that took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Republican-controlled Legislature last year twice rejected attempts by Evers to undo the law. Evers has promised to veto any bill that creates exceptions under the law for rape and incest, saying he will only support a full overturning of the abortion ban.
“We must restore the freedoms that Wisconsinites have had until June 23, 2022, the day before the U.S. Supreme Court overrode Roe v. Wade,” Evers said. “And I believe that together we will.”
He also called for fully funding public schools, legalizing marijuana and expanding the state’s Medicaid program known as BadgerCare Plus. Republicans have opposed efforts to fund public schools as much as Evers wants, voted repeatedly not to accept federal money to expand Medicaid and killed efforts to legalize marijuana, even for medical purposes.
Evers and Democrats point to public opinion polls showing support for abortion rights, expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana as they try to work around, or with, Republican opponents in the Legislature.
The speech was a warm-up of sorts for Evers, who will deliver his State of the State address in three weeks. And in February, Evers will release his two-year state budget plan, which will include details about the state’s projected $6.6 billion surplus.
Evers didn’t mention the surplus Tuesday, instead highlighting key priorities such as cutting taxes for the middle class and not just wealthy residents. His statements were at odds with those of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who said enacting a flat income tax is among his top priorities. Evers opposes such plans, which would lower taxes more dramatically for those at the highest tax rate.
Evers also called for for “generational, transformative improvements as to how we invest in our local communities and keep them safe.” He has called for increased funding to local governments, while Republican legislative leaders are discussing a plan that would give counties, cities, towns and villages a portion of the state sales tax revenue.
Evers planned to meet Wednesday with mayors from the state’s largest cities to discuss options.
In addition to Evers, others sworn in Tuesday included Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez; Attorney General Josh Kaul; Secretary of State Doug La Follette; state Treasurer John Leiber; 17 members of the state Senate and all 99 members of the Assembly. There are seven new state senators and 24 new members of the Assembly being sworn in.
Four former governors attended the ceremony: Republicans Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum and Democrats Jim Doyle and Martin Schreiber. Outgoing Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, both of whom ran for U.S. Senate rather than reelection, were also present.
The Waukesha South High School Marching Band performed, just over a year after some of its members were hurt when a man drove his SUV through the city’s Christmas parade, killing six.