Budget talks continue with occasional agreement, but mostly contention

Finance panel adds $10 million to help veterans’ homes in a future emergency, but rejects proposed increase to Black history museum’s budget

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee in Executive Session in May, rewriting the 2021-2022 state budget. (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

Wisconsin’s veterans agency would get an additional $10 million to address natural disasters and public emergencies at the state’s three veterans’ homes — one of the few budget actions Thursday to draw a unanimous vote in the Legislature’s budget committee.

Along with the infusion — a response to the COVID-19 pandemic — the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) made a 10% increase in funding for county veterans’ services. In addition, the budget includes $100,000 a year for suicide prevention targeted to veterans. In other respects, the Evers administration’s budget proposal for the state Department of Veterans Affairs remained largely intact.

In another unanimous decision, the committee’s 12 Republicans and 4 Democrats authorized bolstering debt collection in the state Department of Revenue (DOR) by converting eight temporary positions due to expire later this year to permanent, full-time ones. DOR has estimated that securing the positions would keep the state from losing out on $2.2 million in debt collections for state agencies in 2021-2022.

Those were exceptions Thursday, however, in another round of budget preparation during which legislators from each political party took turns proposing alternative budget items. Democrats’ proposals failed 4-12, and Republican proposals — generally departing from Gov. Tony Evers’ original budget — passed 12-4 with only GOP votes.

Both Democrats on the committee and Evers remain frustrated at Republicans’ elimination of almost 400 items in Evers’ budget a week ago. Evers, in his weekly taped address sponsored by the Democrats, excoriated the JFC majority for cutting out items “that included policies supported by an overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites like expanding BadgerCare, legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring a nonpartisan approach to redistricting.”

Evers concluded the address with an appeal to voters, urging them to contact their legislators, “tell them to stop playing politics with our economic recovery” and ask them to support his original budget.

Inside the JFC meeting, Democrats used much of their debate time to remind their counterparts of what had been dropped.

When the panel acted on the budget for the Department of Financial Institutions, for example, Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) admonished the majority for eliminating a proposed program to help workers whose employers don’t have retirement savings programs establish such accounts through their workplace.

“Why, in God’s name, would we not want to help people save their own money for their own retirement?” Goyke asked. “This is another missed opportunity because of Republican action in the Legislature.”

In a similar vein, Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), chided the panel for throwing out a proposed student loan ombudsman in the department. When Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), the JFC co-chair responded, “So we’re debating stuff that we debated last Thursday,” Neubauer replied: “Let’s get an opportunity to speak on all these items.”

But the most contentious moment arose after the committee voted on a motion from Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) to restore a $169,000 increase for the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and its museum in Milwaukee, part of the state Historical Society budget. The motion failed along party lines.

Sen. Dale Kooyenga (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

A few minutes earlier, praising the veterans’ agency budget, Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) championed military service as emblematic of diversity and racial equality — in contrast to “the conversations and the curriculum that we’re seeing throughout our city and country that keep pushing this narrative that racism is the core of American history,” he said.

While acknowledging that “racism is part of American history,” he continued, “the core of American history is the fact that this is a nation that on balance has fought for liberty and freedom — and that fight has been from all different colors.”

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

After the vote on the Black History Museum, Goyke challenged Kooyenga, alluding to his earlier statements. “I’m available later today, tomorrow, next week, the week after, the week after, the week after — whenever you want to have a debate on equity,” Goyke said, suggesting that they conduct the debate at the museum.

Johnson followed. “Every single time we come to the floor, if these are our values, if we are literally prioritizing our values in this body, then it explains why we hold the title of being the worst place in the nation to raise an African American child,” she said. “It speaks volumes.”

Born emphatically rejected her argument.

Rep. Mark Born (Screen capture | Wisconsin Eye)

“I have a hard time with the idea that this is some sort of a massive statement that speaks volumes and some big equality or equity statement, when what we have before us is a request that no one really asked for,” he declared.

Born added: “We support diversity in a variety of ways. I think Sen. Kooyenga made some good statements about that when talking about our veterans. And then if you want to look at just Black history, you can stop by the third-floor East [wing of the Capitol] and see a Black history display that’s in the case there — ”

A shocked Johnson interrupted, “Oh, my God!”

“You can have as many outbursts as you want over there, Senator,” Born continued. “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t a fact.” When she responded, calling his comment racist, he pressed on, exercising his power as chair of the meeting.

“You don’t have the floor and you’re not going to sit there and debate me,” he said, before calling for a vote on the GOP version of the Historical Society budget, without the increase.

It passed by the same 12-4 party-line vote.