Gov. Evers calls special session to reduce property taxes, fund schools

Meeting the state’s promise of two-thirds school funding is a ‘win-win’ Evers says

Gov. Tony Evers reads to school children. (Picture courtesy of Eves' office.)
Gov. Tony Evers reads to school children in Mondovi, 10/16/19. (Picture courtesy of Eves' office.)

Gov. Tony Evers held a news conference on Thursday at the state Capitol surrounded by schoolchildren, teachers and public school advocates to sign an executive order calling for a special session to increase state funding for public schools.

New revenue estimates show that Wisconsin is expected to take in $812.2 million more than previously projected through mid-2021. Evers is proposing to use those funds for what he called a “win-win” — reducing the burden on taxpayers, who have repeatedly approved referenda in districts all across Wisconsin to raise their own property taxes to make up the funding gap for their local public schools.

In particular, Evers is calling for investing in special education, mental health services and rural sparsity aid.

Because the state is operating with a budget surplus, cutting property-tax bills and increasing school funding at the same time could make for a rare moment of bipartisan agreement (as the Examiner noted last December). It gets Republicans a property tax cut that they are pushing and more funding for education that Democrats have prioritized, all in one move.

School funding is also a high priority for urban and rural voters across the state.

Rural districts struggling with low enrollment have been particularly hard hit, as the recent battle over a failed referendum and the subsequent vote by the school board to dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle School District shows.

At the press conference, Evers took a shot at Republican legislators who have claimed that the governor only recently took an interest in rural issues.

“Not to be Al Gore,” the governor joked, “but who do you think invented sparsity aid?”

As state superintendent of public instruction, and a rural Wisconsinite from Plymouth himself, Evers has regularly proposed more funding for rural public schools that have sparse student populations. As governor, he made increasing public-school funding a centerpiece of his budget proposal.

The final budget drafted by the Legislature and signed by Evers did not include Evers’ proposed $1.4 billion in classroom spending or $500 million more for special ed. 

“Unfortunately,” Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb) said at the press conference, “the Republican Legislature decided to cut $500 million [in special education funding] from the governor’s original proposal.”

Rep. Sondy Pope
Rep. Sondy Pope

Pope made the point that increased funding for special education helps everyone, because schools are spending more and more of their general funds to meet the federal mandate to cover special-education costs.

The governor’s proposal, which he is calling the Legislature into a special session to consider, includes $79.1 million in additional special education funding, $130 million in equalization aid (the state’s share of school costs for individual districts) and $10.1 million more in sparsity-aid payments, as well as a second tier of sparsity aid for school districts that would otherwise be eligible but have an enrollment of more than 745 pupils.

“We’re reinvesting in our kids — obviously it’s a top priority,” Evers said. “That reinvestment will help districts get out from under going to referendum every two years, and continuing that spiral of borrowing money, and also, frankly, having to go back to their community.”

“We need to help around the issue of rising property taxes,” Evers added. “We get that investing in our schools will do that. In addition, the $130 million we are putting into equalization is a direct tax-reduction effort. So this is about our kids. This is about tax reduction, but at the end of the day it’s the right thing for the state of Wisconsin, so I’m happy to sign this executive order.

The order calls for the Legislature to meet in special session on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 1:30 pm. 

Legislative response

Wisconsin Republicans seemed to be expecting a request along these lines from Evers, and preemptively gave it a lukewarm response yesterday.

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald at his year-end news conference 12/20/19
Sen. Scott Fitzgerald at his year-end news conference 12/20/19 (Photo by Melanie Conklin)

They suggested using the projected surplus to provide both a property tax and income tax cut, and possibly pay off some debt. 

Vos told the Associated Press on Wednesday that he would not spend “a huge amount of the surplus,” and what he did spend would go toward tax cuts. He also expressed skepticism about forwarding any spending plan to the governor out of fears he would “screw around with” tax cuts by changing them using his partial veto authority.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

Legislative Democratic leaders Jennifer Shilling and Gordon Hintz responded to Evers’ announcement saying that more funding for schools is what taxpayers wanted to see in the budget completed last year — but Republicans blocked investing $1.4 billion more in classrooms — so they support the governor’s plan for the surplus.

We need to put our money where our mouth is if we want to re-establish Wisconsin’s reputation as a leader in K-12 education,” said Shilling. 

Added Hintz, “There should be areas of bipartisan agreement in this proposal. The school-based mental health care funding had Republican support under former Governor Scott Walker and rhetorical support by Republican legislators this session. We’ll see whether this funding is truly a priority for Republicans, or just a talking point. With additional state revenue, we have the ability to get this done before the end of the legislative session.”

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz

Evers says choosing between the two options is a false choice. His plan spends $250 million of the projected surplus. “We don’t have to choose between investing in our kids and reducing property taxes—we can do both.”

An estimated district by district breakdown of the additional $79.1 million for special education funding can be found here.

An estimated district by district breakdown of the 83 eligible districts for the Tier Two of Sparsity Aid can be found here

 

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.
Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.