After a tumultuous few years of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising costs, and political unrest, Wisconsin has now started to see growth in its economy.
The state finished 2023 on a high note, reaching a record number of nonfarm jobs in November — more than 3 million — according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The unemployment rate was 3.3%.
But this upward trend is expected to cool off, with job growth forecasted to slow in 2024, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, and many residents and communities are still struggling with the rising cost of essentials such as groceries and housing.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said that last year he visited the city of Antigo, where he found a bustling downtown with thriving shops. He toured four small businesses that had received Main Street Bounceback grants from the state to spur economic growth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel good about small-town Wisconsin, frankly,” Evers said in an interview with the Wisconsin Independent, reflecting on the last year and the year ahead.
“We have to celebrate the good part of the economy,” Evers said. “But we also have to realize that some of this is not working for some people and we have to make sure that we have all the safety nets in place that need to be there.”
Evers hopes to keep the momentum going on economic growth by looking at solutions such as lowering energy costs and adding state jobs. The state recently hired additional Department of Corrections employees after increasing staff pay to $33 per hour, Evers said, a move aimed to increase staffing and address other issues plaguing the state’s prisons.
Now one year into his second term as governor, Evers has other issues top of mind heading into an important election year.
The biggest hurdle Wisconsin faces in 2024 has to do with education funding, Evers said.
“For some reason, the people, or the Legislature in particular has decided that the University of Wisconsin System is not worth the investment. And they couldn’t be more wrong,” Evers said.
In 2023, the Republican-controlled state Legislature slashed funding to the UW system by $32 million. In December, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos held UW employee raises and funding for a new engineering building at UW–Madison hostage in exchange for cuts to diversity, equity and inclusion staffing. Evers worries about the future of the state’s technical colleges, too.
“Anything in higher education is at risk,” he said.
Underfunding higher education is an economic issue, Evers said: “Many [Republicans] represent campuses that are the lifeblood, and frankly, the economic drivers of most cities in those regions. And any time we take a hatchet to the funding for our University of Wisconsin System, our technical college system, we’re hurting that, we’re not helping.”
K-12 education funding is also at risk, he said. While Evers used his powerful veto pen last year to increase revenue limits for schools for 400 years, there’s more to do. He said school districts can’t rely exclusively on local taxpayers to pay the bills and that in the next budget, he will aim to provide even more resources to K-12 schools.
When a Dane County judge ruled in December that abortion was once again legal in the state of Wisconsin, reproductive rights advocates rejoiced.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2022 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the U.S. Constitution did not guarantee a person’s right to have an abortion, a Wisconsin state law dating to 1849 that was interpreted as an abortion ban went into effect, barring nearly all abortions for more than a year.
And while Dane County Circuit Judge Diane Schlipper’s ruling that the 1849 law banned infanticide, not abortion, has once again given Wisconsinites the right to an abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, the legal battle isn’t over, and Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski has filed an appeal of the ruling. The case is expected to ultimately be decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Evers said voters need to stay vigilant as the case moves through the court system.
“Voters need to understand that it’s not a done deal yet. It could change in an eyelash or the wrong decision at some level of government,” he said.
Wisconsin has a lot of infrastructure needs on the table. Evers believes broadband expansion, improvements to water quality, roads and bridges, and passenger rail expansion are all possible.
“They’re all important and they’re all things that we can do. So I feel good about our efforts on infrastructure, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Evers said. “And it costs money.”
The governor said that investments have already been made in those areas, thanks to funding from Democratic President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That funding has helped the state expand internet access; make upgrades to public transit, including the potential for more passenger rail in new cities; upgrade water and stormwater infrastructure; and remove lead pipes.
Evers said the state’s $7 billion budget surplus could be used to further invest in infrastructure needs, especially roads, utilities and water quality. Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature have yet to agree on what that surplus should be used for, though, and it’s unclear whether it will be spent in the next biennial budget or not.
Evers declared 2023 the “year of mental health,” and he traveled around the state to learn more about mental health issues among students, suicide rates among veterans, and gun access and violent crimes stemming from mental health issues.
He found that young people are leading the charge. At one school he visited in central Wisconsin, Evers said, about a third of the students at the high school were participating in a mental health organization led entirely by kids.
Evers also visited with farmers in Reedsburg to talk about a farmer mental health network, and in Iron River, where a $2.5 million grant from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services helped the NorthLakes Community Clinic expand its behavioral telehealth services for kids.
“I think we have turned the corner on people understanding the significance of it. We still got a long way to go to solving the problem. We need more practitioners, we need more facilities to make sure that kids and adults who are struggling with this get the help they need,” he said. “But we made progress, and I’m happy about that.”