How Wisconsin’s Evers increased school funding (for 402 years)

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At first blush, the fact that Gov. Tony Evers signed a new state budget into law might not seem like a national news story. The fact that the Wisconsin Democrat managed to increase funding for public schools might seem like an encouraging development, but again, it’s not the sort of thing folks outside the Badger State would find notable.

But what makes this week’s developments in Madison a national news story is how, exactly, the governor increased school funding — for the next four centuries. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a highly unusual approach to Evers’ partial veto power.

The surprise move will ensure districts’ state-imposed limits on how much revenue they are allowed to raise will be increased by $325 per student each year until 2425, creating a permanent annual stream of new revenue for public schools and potentially curbing a key debate between Democrats and Republicans during each state budget-writing cycle.

There are a variety of ways in which Wisconsin’s state government is abnormal, but the power of the governor’s office is among the most striking. As a WisConnect report explained, “Wisconsin’s top state office has extraordinary latitude to reshape bills — specifically appropriations bills — through the use of partial vetoes. These vetoes are similar to the line-item veto powers granted to governors of most other states, but Wisconsin’s partial veto is uniquely powerful. That difference is because, unlike in other states, governors in Wisconsin can strike nearly any part of a budget bill, including sentences, words or in some cases even a single character or digit.”

As Evers and his team discovered, the power came in especially handy this year. According to the budget approved by the Republican-led state legislature, Wisconsin schools will receive an additional $325 per student “for the 2023-24 school year and the 2024-25 school year.”

But once the bill reached his desk, the governor gave that text a little touch up, removed some characters and a hyphen, and without actually adding any text of his own, Evers signed a bill that will allocate an additional $325 per student “for the 2023-2425 school year.”

Obviously, Evers realizes this isn’t what state lawmakers had in mind. But the Democrat has the procedural power; he used it within the limits of the law; and he seems rather pleased to have pulled a fast one on Republicans in the state legislature.

The Journal Sentinel’s article went on to note the governor also edited dozens of other provisions, including scrapping a GOP plan to cut taxes on Wisconsin’s wealthiest residents.

But on the four centuries’ worth of school funding, I’ll confess to having mixed feelings. To be sure, I’m impressed by the creativity, and I’m glad many students will benefit from the additional funding. But I’m also of the opinion that sound policymaking isn’t supposed to work this way.

Is it good news that these tricks and gimmicks will produce worthwhile results? Yes. But should governors in general have the authority to play the role of Super Legislator, editing and signing bills like this? Probably not.

There’s a lot wrong with Wisconsin’s system, starting with the hyper-gerrymandered state legislature that gives Republicans a ridiculous and unwarranted advantage. But when making a list of flaws, it’s probably best to include the governor’s partial-veto powers, too.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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