Melanie Conklin

Parties Bash Heads on State Budget

Evers budget and Republican proposals are miles apart. A compromise won’t be easy.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Apr 12th, 2021 04:16 pm
Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The process of creating a state budget to fund the next two years is underway with a supposed July 1 deadline in state law. It’s often said that budgets are moral documents that lay bare the priorities of the parties crafting them.

In Wisconsin, it’s not as simple as Republicans wanting to cut taxes and Democrats wanting to take care of people’s basic needs. There are cost-savings measures, tax cuts and priorities that each side rejects, while the other side wants them badly.

Divided government in Wisconsin means that in the final document neither side will get everything it wants, yet the public can learn a lot about its elected representatives by examining the differences how Democratic and Republican elected officials want to spend the taxpayers’ money.

The public also gets to weigh in on this equation. Joint Finance Committee’s (JFC) budget hearings began on Friday in Whitewater, and Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes continue to hold virtual hearings on a range of topics. (Next will be ‘Justice Reform & Marijuana Legalization’ on April 14 and ‘Climate Change & Our Environment’ on April 21.) Many individual legislators are also holding hearings or gathering input in their districts, all of which is made more challenging by the pandemic.

Evers laid his budget priorities out in a speech on Feb. 16. That same evening, moments after he finished speaking, Republicans held a press conference to announce they would toss out his budget. They labeled Evers’ budget proposal, which they had not had time to read or digest, a liberal fantasy.

With a split balance of power between the Democratic executive and Republican legislative branches, eventually the two parties will have to work together to put a new budget in place that will be signed when it arrives on Evers’ desk. If there are no Democratic votes out of the Legislature, it is likely to be vetoed. That requires these differing visions be melded.

GOP toplines

The Republican chairs of JFC have held four agency briefings, in which Evers’ cabinet members who head departments were brought before the committee to talk about their budgets, followed by a grilling by JFC members. Before those meetings, and in other public talks, co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), laid out their top budget goals.

The top priority, according to Marklein, is to keep the deficit down. GOP legislative leaders frequently boast of “budget reforms of the past decade” — meaning Act 10, which  reduced the  salaries and benefits of public employees, as well as large cuts to all levels of education and cuts to social service programs early in former Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure. Republicans do not mention policy trade-offs that increased state expenses. An expensive example Democrats counter with is a tax cut they called the “Manufacturing and Agriculture tax credit” that went primarily to a handful of the state’s most wealthy individuals regardless of whether they were paying any taxes.

“We have had a chance to take a pretty deep dive into what the governor’s got in his budget and, you know, one of the concerns that I have from a very high level is kind of the financial impact on our state,” said Marklein. “If we adopted the governor’s budget as is, we would go from that surplus back to a deficit position. We would lose, basically, a third of the progress we’ve made over the course of the last decade. That’s unacceptable to me.”

With an eye toward replacing state money, Republicans are pushing to seize control of the nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus funding from the two pandemic relief packages — and continuing efforts by the Legislature via a series of bills to wrestle control over that money from the governor. Those efforts appear headed for failure, although Speaker Robin Vos has vowed to take the matter to court, despite the need — underscored by his fellow Republicans — to get that money into the economy quickly. There are strict limitations on how the federal money can be spent, meaning it cannot simply be used for state expenses from the general fund coffers.

To put that money into perspective, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, Wisconsin’s total expenditures in fiscal year 2020 were $51.8 billion. Evers’ proposed two-year budget for ‘21-’23 totaled $91 billion.

“So, the total amount of federal money that’s coming to the state is huge,” Marklein added. “That is something that we’re going to have to consider as we do the budget.” What cuts Republicans might seek he did not say.

“There’s a lot of money going directly to schools,” Born said. “One of the things we’ll focus on most … is getting kids back into the classroom full-time.” His second stated goal for education was “prioritizing choices for families and parents … so school choice we know is an important part of the education system.

Born has labeled this budget “even worse” than Evers’ last budget, saying it’s “filled with non-fiscal, divisive policy.” Marklein labeled it “a liberal’s dream” not just for the policy but also for the amount it spends. The Republicans rejected marijuana legalization, union rights and other measures saying  they had no place in the budget. But they also rejected Evers’ inclusion of juvenile justice reform, even though it does have a major financial impact, as part of the budget.

“But it’s, again, so big, so broad, and this is, I think, an even better example of this type of policy stuff that does not belong in a budget,” said Born.

The JFC co-chairs said they expect bipartisanship in the budget, however broadband expansion was the only thing they mentioned that they liked in Evers’ plan.

Democratic goals

The JFC is made up of 16 members, eight from each house. Twelve are Republicans, four are Democrats. The Democrats spoke  before the start of Friday’s first JFC public hearing, highlighting issues they would most like to see preserved from the governor’s budget.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) credited Evers for gathering public input during the pandemic, stating, “This is a real people’s budget. He really hit the core of the things that are important to you.” Continuing to address Wisconsinites she said everyone should not just survive but thrive. “Remember, you are important.”

Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) gave the Democratic perspective on education, supporting the extension of a  tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin and funding to help low and middle-income families attend college. He transitioned to K-12 education and the governor’s commitment to return to state funding two-thirds of the cost of public schools, as well as covering federally mandated special education costs so schools don’t have to cut other programs. He also highlighted “dozens of initiatives in the budget this year that would close the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers,” including teacher grants, mental health and public safety.

Noteworthy when it comes to priorities was the many times he said “public” education with no mention of the private school vouchers the GOP chairs favor.

“There’s no surprise that Gov. Evers has proposed a critical and transformational budget on K-12,” said Goyke. “No governor in the history of the state of Wisconsin has had more experience in education than Tony Evers, he was a teacher, a principal, an administrator.”

Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) emphasized economic investments, highlighting $200 million for small businesses, $100 million in venture capital funds for entrepreneurs and workforce development using Fast Forward grants to boost apprenticeship and training.

Asked by the Examiner if each could pick one thing they would most want to see in the budget, Erpenbach went first declaring to laughter from others present: “The one thing for me personally would be everything that the governor proposed.”

He singled out Evers “proposing catch-up” funding for public and UW education then got himself down to one item:

“But more importantly, the Medicaid expansion. I cannot stress to anybody how important that is [to]  cover some 90,000 people who make like ten bucks an hour and get them covered under BadgerCare so they have access to quality health care.”

For years Republicans have rejected the federal money that would come with expanding BadgerCare, which frequently comes up as a priority for their Democratic colleagues and with stimulus sweeteners, Erpenbach points out, Wisconsin would save an additional $1 billion in the budget while insuring more Wisconsinites.

Neubauer also singled out the BadgerCare expansion, citing it as critical for resilience throughout and after the pandemic for her hometown of Racine and saying it would “increase access to affordable healthcare and reduce insurance costs for Wisconsinites across the state.”

One of Goyke’s passions is reforming the criminal justice system, so it’s not surprising that he picked Evers’ justice reform initiatives as his top personal choice for an item to make it into the budget. It’s the same package that Born wants removed.

“Wisconsin needs to catch up to the rest of the country and pass the ‘raise the age’ provision to return 17-year-olds to the juvenile system,” said Goyke. Other elements of it include “expanding treatment alternatives and diversion to include mental health courts, and make important changes to our correctional system to preserve public safety while saving taxpayer dollars.”

“A personal favorite for me would be expanding Bucky’s Promise,” Johnson said. “That is free tuition for kids whose parents earn $60,000 or less. As a first generation college graduate, I know the importance of making sure the finances are there to complete your education and sometimes families aren’t able to help. … But I also know that when impoverished kids get an education they don’t just take that education and go about their business and live their lives — they reach back and they help.

“It would be a game changer for those families and those kids, but most importantly for the state of Wisconsin.”

Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton), is not on the budget committee, but attended the hearing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which is in his district. He picked a capital budget item — the teacher college at Winther Hall, which he said produces the most teachers in Wisconsin and had been in need of renovation for more than a decade before Evers selected it this year. “I’m hoping that would be the one that gets focused on since we’re here,” said Vruwink.

Secretary of Revenue Peter Barca,  representing the governor at the public hearing, also gave an answer. He said that with federal stimulus funding, “the governor is taking care of business in a major way,” as well as boosting rental assistance and the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income individuals.

“So being a former superintendent, I’m sure he would say that the future of this state will depend on having a world-class workforce and that can be obtained both through what we do in K-12 education, higher education and the technical college system,” said Barca.

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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