MADISON — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who campaigned in support of legalizing medical marijuana, went a step further this week and said he now supports full legalization, giving hope to Democrats and other advocates who have pushed the issue unsuccessfully for years.
Attorney General Josh Kaul also said on Wednesday that he would make the case across Wisconsin for legalizing medical marijuana as an alternative to prescribing more opioids to combat pain.
Any change would have to pass the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has blocked past attempts to soften the law.
"At the end of the day do I favor legalization? Yes," Evers said at a meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council on Tuesday. "I want it to be done correctly so we will likely have in our budget a first step around medical marijuana."
WisPolitics.com was the first to report on his comments.
Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff did not immediately return a message Wednesday seeking more details.
Evers said he may call for a statewide referendum on legalization. Such referendums are advisory only in Wisconsin, but could increase pressure on reticent Republicans.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he's open to legalizing medical marijuana, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he doesn't support it.
"I still don't believe the support's there within the Senate caucus to move in that direction, but I know the debate is going on nationwide," Fitzgerald said on Tuesday when asked about the issue.
Kaul, in an interview with WTMJ-TV, cast the issue as a way to combat opioid abuse.
"We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic and when people are facing pain issues — I would much rather have a doctor prescribing medical marijuana than an opioid," Kaul told the television station.
Democratic state Rep. Melissa Sargent, who has introduced bills to full legalize marijuana, said she believed public support will put pressure on Republicans to come around.
"For too long we've had people at the top of the food chain who suffer from reefer madness," Sargent said. "Frankly, it's time for them to swallow their pride and hear the people of our state and move forward."
Wisconsin is one of 17 states that doesn't have some form of marijuana legalization. Democrats in the state have long pushed for some level of legalization, but Republicans have not entertained the idea.
There appears to be strong support among voters in Wisconsin for legalization. In the November election, voters in 16 counties supported non-binding referendums calling for legalization of medical marijuana. A Marquette University Law School poll in August found 61 percent support for full legalization, with 36 percent opposed.
During the campaign, Evers said he supported legalizing medical marijuana and he backed holding a statewide referendum on full legalization. His campaign website noted that as a cancer survivor himself, Evers is "all too familiar with the side effects of a major illness that can make everyday tasks" and that medical marijuana could alleviate chronic pain for many people.
Evers said Tuesday he thinks the question is not if Wisconsin will legalize recreational marijuana, but when.
Evers also expressed concern about major, national pharmaceutical companies overtaking the market if marijuana is legalized in Wisconsin.
"I want it to be set up in a way that people in the state of Wisconsin feel comfortable that they can make some money by doing this work without having to essentially go broke," he said.
The Latest: Evers opposes Republican income tax
cut; calls for changes to Republican insurance bill
The Wisconsin Assembly's Health Committee has approved a Republican-authored bill designed to guarantee insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
Two Democrats voted with all Republicans on the panel Thursday to advance the measure. The vote sets it up for a vote by the full Assembly on Tuesday.
But Gov. Tony Evers says he won't sign the measure unless several changes are made.
Gov. Tony Evers is seeking changes to a Republican bill designed to guarantee insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
The Democrat Evers tweeted Thursday that he met with Republican legislative leaders and asked them to consider a number of changes to the bill.
Evers says he wants the bill to prevent insurance plans from setting annual and lifetime limits for health care protections. He also wants it to cover services for mothers and newborns and prescription drug costs.
Evers says he will not sign a bill that "fails to fully protect Wisconsinites like me who have pre-existing conditions." Evers is a cancer survivor.
Assembly Republicans plan to vote on passing the bill Tuesday.
MADISON, Wis. — The Latest on Republican tax cut proposal (all times local):
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers opposes a Republican income tax cut plan.
Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff says the plan unveiled Thursday "falls short" of what the governor wants to do.
While both $340 million plans target the middle class, the difference is in how they're paid for.
Evers wants to cap tax breaks under a manufacturing and agriculture credit program that Republicans created. Republicans want to pay for the tax cut plan by tapping a nearly $600 million budget surplus.
Republicans offer Evers deal on income tax cut
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Assembly Republicans proposed a $340 million income tax cut plan Thursday that they said would give Democratic Gov. Tony Evers a "fantastic" opportunity to fulfill one of his top campaign promises.
But Republicans would tap a budget surplus to pay for it rather than scale back a corporate tax break program as Evers wants, forcing Evers to decide if he will accept the deal under their terms. Republicans were also moving quickly to pass a bill designed to protect people with pre-existing health conditions, even though Evers has signaled opposition.
The two issues are early tests for Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature as they jockey for position and attempt to get the upper hand early in the governor's first term. State government is under divided control for the first time in more than a decade.
Evers campaigned on cutting income taxes by 10 percent for the middle class. But he wants to pay for it by nearly eliminating the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit program, a Republican priority signed into law by former Gov. Scott Walker.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a Capitol news conference that "we'll see how serious" Evers is about wanting to work together to cut taxes. Evers' spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald signaled general support for the idea.
"With another budget surplus this year, we can once again prioritize lowering taxes on families without raising taxes on small businesses and farmers," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Republicans are moving ahead quickly with a bill that would guarantee health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The Assembly Health Committee planned to vote on advancing the measure Thursday, two days after a public hearing, which would set up a vote on passage Tuesday.
Vos said he wanted to pass the bill on the first day lawmakers were in session. That evening, Evers is delivering his first State of the State speech. By introducing the tax cut proposal now, Evers has a "fantastic chance" to announce his support for the plan in his State of the State speech, Vos said.
Republicans are focusing on the income tax cut and pre-existing insurance coverage because they see those as issues where they can work together with Evers, Vos said.
But Evers earlier this week signaled his opposition to the pre-existing conditions bill, saying he will only sign a proposal that would guarantee protections as well or better than the Affordable Care Act already does. The Republican proposal's protections would be narrower than the existing federal ones.
Supporters of the GOP proposal argue that there's no reason to oppose putting in place state protections, which would only take effect if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But opponents say it wouldn't work as planned unless other elements of the federal law, including those designed to keep down costs, are also in place.
"The bill is just window dressing and no substitute for the ACA," said Bobby Peterson, an attorney at ABC for Health, a group that advocates for poor people.
While the battle over those two issues continues, Evers and Republican leaders can't even agree on a time to meet to talk about it.
Evers tweeted Wednesday that he had invited Republican leaders to meet to discuss the issue. Vos and Fitzgerald responded with a letter they made public saying they couldn't meet with Evers on Friday as he proposed, but they could on Thursday afternoon.
Evers' spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor wants to meet with them and "we're going to find a time that works for the governor."
Both Evers and Republican leaders have said they want to find common ground and Evers met privately with GOP lawmakers on Tuesday, but the public negotiating for something as seemingly routine as a meeting time is highly unusual and suggests they have yet to establish a working relationship.
Federal judge in Wisconsin
strikes early-voting restrictions
MADISON, Wis. — A federal judge on Thursday struck down early-voting restrictions Wisconsin Republicans adopted in a December lame-duck legislative session, saying the limits mirror restrictions he blocked two years ago.
Republicans voted in December to limit in-person early voting to no more than two weeks before an election. The move came after a difficult midterm election in November in which the overwhelmingly Democratic cities of Madison and Milwaukee held early voting for six weeks — far longer than in smaller and more conservative communities.
The GOP lost every statewide race but retained majorities in the Legislature and quickly convened the lame-duck session to pass bills that Gov. Scott Walker — also defeated in the election — could sign before leaving office.
Walker and Republicans argued the early-voting window should be uniform across the state, not left up to each community to determine. Walker argued it was an issue of fairness, and that local communities could decide when within the two-week period to offer early voting.
A coalition of liberal groups with the support of former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asked U.S. District Judge James Peterson to strike down the restrictions three days after Walker signed them into law.
Peterson blocked similar two-week early voting restrictions along with a number of other Republican-authored voting laws in 2016. State attorneys have asked the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse Peterson.
The appellate court has yet to rule but Peterson wrote Thursday that he can still enforce his own orders in the 2016 ruling. He said the lame-duck early-voting restrictions clearly mimic the limits he blocked in 2016.
"This is not a close question," Peterson wrote. Later, he added: "Defendants do not even attempt to show that there is a material difference between the number of days permitted under (the lame-duck law) and the number of days permitted under the previous law."
Peterson also blocked provisions in the lame-duck law that prohibit voters from using expired student IDs and temporary IDs older than 60 days as identification in the polls. He said those restrictions too closely mirror statutes he struck down in 2016 that blocked expired student IDs and invalidated temporary IDs older than 180 days.
Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Alec Zimmerman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, had no immediate comment.
Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Institute, one of the groups who brought the challenge, said in a statement that Peterson told Vos and other Republicans "in no uncertain terms that they are not above the law. The Republican attacks on voting rights were unconstitutional when they were passed, they were unconstitutional when the judge struck them down and they are unconstitutional now."
Martha Laning, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, which is not a party in the legal challenges, said in a statement that Democrats will continue to meet Republican attempts to "rig the system in their favor and sabotage our democratic processes with strong opposition."