This week, Tony Evers was sworn in as governor for the state of Wisconsin. We’re not going to sugar-coat the significance of him occupying the east wing. Governor Evers has taken a number of positions that are contrary to mainstream conservative positions on the role of government, K-12 education, healthcare, and transportation. In the next four years, conservatives will disagree with him. A lot.
It would be disingenuous for us to pretend that we aren’t going to be part of that. Part of democracy is that people with differing views are going to, well, differ with each other.
But perhaps we won’t differ on everything. Positions on issues don’t have to be reduced to a jersey check. We may be naive but we think Evers can work with Republican majorities on the following initiatives to advance the liberty movement in Wisconsin:
1. Take power back from Washington D.C.: It’s comforting to know that liberals have finally discovered a distrust of the federal government during the Trump era. They should align with conservatives who want to bring more policymaking power back to the states.
The first step is for Wisconsin to enact a law to shine a light on all the ways that the federal government coerces states to enact certain laws and policies. WILL model legislation (page 8 here) would require the state’s budget bureau to identify all the conditions attached to sources of federal funds in the state budget and categorize them according to economic impact and whether they are unconstitutional. In addition, it would declare it that the policy of the state of Wisconsin is to work with other states to end coercive federal programs.
2. Align with taxpayers over well-connected developers: As we’ve said in the past, tax increment financing (TIF) is almost the perfect occasion of political sin. Many times it provides politicians an opportunity to give taxpayer money away to favored interests, claim credit for things that would have been happened anyway, and claim that it’s all “free.” What could go wrong?
Last year, in a case called Voters with Facts v. Eau Claire, the Wisconsin Supreme Court crippled the ability of taxpayers to ensure that tax increment financing is used only for the purposes for which it was designed. But the legislature can do two things to fight this form of crony capitalism.
First, it can insist on transparency by requiring municipalities to inform taxpayers whether or not projections on TIFS have been realized. Second, it could amend existing law to make clear that the prerequisites for tax increment financing are real requirements – not meaningless recitations – and that taxpayers have the right to challenge municipal determinations that they exist.
Once again, we can disagree on the proper roles for government but we ought to be able to agree that needless giveaways to private developers are not among them.
3. Require state government to sunset certain occupational licenses: From President Obama to the Koch brothers, bipartisan coalitions are forming across the country to scrutinize occupational licensing laws to ensure that they do not serve as a barrier to work. According to WILL research, the number of workers impacted by occupational licensure in Wisconsin had grown by 34 percent over the last two decades. This growth was accompanied by an 84 percent increase in license-types regulated by the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) since 1996. And licensing is estimated to cost Badger State consumers close to $2 billion each year in higher costs.
The Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) recently issued a new comprehensive report on licensing in Wisconsin with recommendations for reform, including the elimination of 28 occupational licenses. Governor Evers would be wise to embrace this reform agenda that eliminates unnecessary barriers to work. Democrats and Republicans; progressives and conservatives might differ on many things. But all ought to be able to support the right of ordinary people to work without unnecessary legal burdens.
To hit the ground running, Governor Evers should work with the legislature to enact structural reforms in the form of “sunrise” and “sunset” review processes that create objective criteria to scrutinize and evaluate new and proposed licenses. Sunrise and sunset reviews exist in some “purple” and “blue” states like Colorado, Washington, and Vermont – and serve a critical role in ensuring that licensing laws are balanced between protecting the health and safety of the public without hindering competition and new entrants.
4. Enact the Right to Earn a Living Act: Want to go even “bigger” and “bolder” than occupational licensing reform? Wisconsin should follow Arizona’s lead by passing a law limiting the government’s ability to regulate how people “earn a living” unless it directly relates to public safety.
More so than ever the government is increasingly intruding into the private affairs of individuals with no justification for health and safety. Excessive red tape has to be dealt with just to cut hair. Or to rent out your barn to be used for a wedding.
In Arizona, the state signed a law that, as described by the Goldwater Institute, is “based on a simple premise: The government should have to prove that excessive regulations on people who want to earn an honest living will keep people safe—not just keep existing companies safe from competition.” Wisconsin should follow suit.
5. Give students all over the state access to more courses: There are deep disagreements between Governor Evers and conservatives about trusting parents to choose their own schools (see our piece here at Fordham Institute for more on that). But here’s something everyone can get behind. The Wisconsin Course Choice Program was established to permit students at K-12 public schools to take courses outside of their local public school, including at private schools. “Course choice” gives students more access to learning without needing to attend a different school. Perplexingly, the Walker Administration rolled back its own program, limiting it to only public school students taking courses at a different public school (no longer private).
Not only should this be reversed, Course Choice should be expanded. Students at both public and private schools should be permitted to take courses at public and private schools (if the schools want the additional students). It is a win-win for all students and all schools – regardless of sector.
6. Greater transparency in public school funding: Wisconsin’s school funding system is so complex that it is almost undemocratic. To fully understand the system, one probably needs a Ph.D. or to have worked in the capital for years. Voters – and many lawmakers (!) – do not fully understand how public dollars are raised and spent on schools.
But before the state makes any decisions on how to reform the system – which is, admittedly, going to be divisive – there should be more transparency on school funding so that lawmakers and the public know where dollars are being spent in K-12 public schools. To do this, Wisconsin could follow other states and require transparency for school finance for public school districts through a central database. For example, Georgia requires that the state’s department of education collect and publish every public school’s expense in a searchable database. Texas has a public website that rates all public and charter schools by their financial management practices.
7. Repeal the minimum mark-up law: Last – but not least for those who frequent RightWisconsin, WILL, or any of the other free market organizations – state law mandates that businesses mark-up the price of gas, groceries, prescription drugs, school supplies, and more. This can raise consumer prices at least six percent higher than what they otherwise would be. This significantly harms consumers, especially those on fixed budgets in the inner city or rural Wisconsin.
Defenders of the law repeatedly claim that the law helps protect the “little guy.” But, as a study has indicated, minimum markup laws have no effect on the number of small businesses in the state. In reality, the law prevents competition and keeps prices artificially high. Repealing it could give an immediate pay bump to those on fixed budgets, stuck in poverty, in rural and urban Wisconsin (key constituencies for both sides of the aisle).
The media, rightfully so, will focus on the big disagreements between Republican and Democrats. These aren’t going away. But let’s have both sides make a New Year’s Resolution to agree when we can and to further policies that promote free enterprise, opportunity for all, and government transparency.
Rick Esenberg is general counsel and the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
CJ Szafir is Executive Vice President at WILL.