Assembly chamber in the Wisconsin State Capitol Building | Richard Hurd CC BY 2.0
Republicans’ large advantage in the Legislature — courtesy of their gerrymandered district maps — means that the focus of legislative action is generally all on the GOP. Their leaders control which bills get considered in committee, which gets a public hearing, which comes to the floor and which gets sent to the governor’s desk. If Democratic members want a bill passed, particularly in the Assembly, they have to turn it over to a GOP legislator as lead author.
Tuesday before the state Assembly debate and vote on the biennial 2021-23 state budget began, the question was, “What will Democrats do?”
That’s because if Democratic legislators vote for the budget, it’s a signal that Gov. Tony Evers is more likely to sign the massive document that guides state spending for the next two years into law.
Despite a lot of complaints from Democrats on inadequate funding for all levels of education, squandering the opportunities and money that would have come with BadgerCare expansion, the failure to address an environmental crisis on climate and water and the lack of criminal justice reform and equity measures — in the end four of the 38 Democrats voted for the GOP-crafted budget. They were Reps. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay), Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield) and Don Vruwink (D-Milton). All 60 Republicans voted for it.
The budget Republicans approved in the powerful Joint Finance Committee is a far cry from the one proposed by Evers back on Feb. 16 when he gave his official address with its introduction. Still, despite having his powers curtailed by the Republicans, the governor’s partial veto ability remains strong — he can strike words and numbers in a spending bill.
Assembly Democrats highlighted what they described as missed opportunities and serious policy flaws in the Republicans’ plan with a series of eight broad amendments they put forward. The amendments revolved around improving health care, more funds for education at all levels, improving drinking water and the environment, reforming the criminal justice system, economic development including childcare and one focused on nonpartisan redistricting.
All of them failed, and the Assembly passed a budget that was the same as the document that came out of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) save for minor edits. It no longer includes more than 400 measures the GOP dumped from Evers’ budget plan as their first order of business.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that members of his caucus all seemed not just likely — but excited — to vote for the JFC budget.
“Our caucus people have been giddy because we had the opportunity to invest in our priorities, making sure that we funded health care for the poor and didn’t have to expand welfare to do it, and we have the largest tax cuts in at least a generation. So it’s things that we should all be proud of.”
He predicted — correctly — that there would be no GOP votes in opposition, calling the budget “one that really works to connect with the average Wisconsin family, the average Wisconsin business.”
“Luckily in Wisconsin, we were able to return real dollars on a permanent basis so that people can use those to make decisions for their own families as opposed to depending on government to get the resources for themselves.”
Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said the only explanation for Republicans crafting an austere, partisan budget when the state has access to an abundance of resources — and is actually rejecting more than $1 billion on the table — was to prevent Evers from having a popular budget the year before his 2022 re-election campaign. (Vos’ response to this charge was “What a bunch of hooey.”)
“Unfortunately not a lot has changed in terms of Republicans’ approach since Gov. Evers was elected,” Hintz told reporters before the Assembly convened. “We have an opportunity to address generational needs and change the trajectory of our state for the better with an influx of resources … We have the ability to do that but Republicans are throwing this opportunity away.”
The flush budget is a far cry from what was expected when the pandemic began. As unemployment rose, businesses closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and the economy in many sectors suffered — a weakened budgetary picture was expected.
The abundance of a projected $4.4 billion revenue surplus over three years and several billion in federal aid left Wisconsin sitting pretty with what legislators described as $5.3 billion in new revenue.
Republicans take the credit for the state’s fiscal health — saying it was cuts they made over the near decade under former Gov. Scott Walker that set the state up, but a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau in early June chalked the resources up to an upsurge in general fund tax collections.
“It’s a really complex network of things that happened to prevent the kind of economic or fiscal challenges that we were forecasting a year ago,” Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee who sits on the JFC, told the Examiner. He cited Evers’ renegotiation of the state’s contract with FoxConn, which saved the state $464 million, $70 million in cuts Evers asked his departments to make during the pandemic and Medicaid costs down $750 million as contributing factors.
Another Fiscal Bureau report from last week compared the spending in the two budgets side by side, finding that the GOP budget spends $88 billion versus Evers’ $91 billion. Because various revenue generating proposals — including BadgerCare expansion and marijuana legalization — were eliminated by Republicans, the difference in the amount that would come from the taxpayers is $37.3 billion under Republicans’ budget and $38.6 billion under Evers’ budget.
Vos said the governor’s budget had to be gutted. “His budget had dramatic tax increases, it had massive increases in spending, expansions of welfare, legalizing marijuana — all kinds of social policy that the Joint Finance Committee took out of the budget and reconfigured it to make sure that this reflects the priorities of all of Wisconsin, not just liberal Democrats in certain parts of the state.”
Both sides spoke about the values that their preferred budget reflects. Below are some key differences between the GOP version and what Evers had in the budget — much of which Democratic Assembly members reintroduced in their eight overarching budget amendments at the beginning of the debate.
Items deleted by Republicans include:
- Expanding Medicaid, called BadgerCare in Wisconsin, which would give 90,000 people access to quality, affordable care while bringing in $1.6 billion in funds to the state. This was the top goal for most Democrats. The federal government added $1 billion as an extra enticement to Wisconsin, one of the last hold-out states, to be spent in any way the state desired.
- Closing Lincoln Hills juvenile prison and juvenile justice reform including moving 17-year-olds to the juvenile system.
- Full legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes, another revenue generator for the state.
- Non-partisan redistricting.
- Evers’ rollback of Act 10, which took away union workers’ rights for public Wisconsin employees in 2011.
- Another labor-focused measure by Evers was repealing the “right to work” law that constrains union dues collection and non-union, often cheaper, labor at certain construction sites.
- Evers raised the state minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.15 per hour by 2024.
- The governor scaled back the “manufacturing and agriculture” state credit that primarily goes to a handful of state billionaires, saving the state $487 million.
- In other tax policy, Evers’ proposed expanding the earned income and homestead tax credits, both of which benefit low-income Wisconsin residents.
- Evers capped enrollment at taxpayer-funded private voucher schools and added a requirement that teachers be licensed.
- Spending $15 million to update the unemployment system equipment. A failure to keep up with unemployment claims during the pandemic drew harsh criticism focused on Evers in the height of the pandemic, but the GOP eliminated funding to replace the decades-old equipment, opting instead for a study.
- Declaring 2021 the Year of Broadband in his State of the State address, Evers followed up with a plan to put $200 million in the budget for broadband expansion, funded with state revenue. (He has also used $100 million in pandemic relief funds toward this goal.) Republicans propose borrowing $125 million for expansion.
- Requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
- Evers’ budget established an Office of Prescription Drug Affordability, which would have 16 employees overseeing prescription drug regulations he also included in his budget.
- Climate challenge measures were cut.
- Equity measures across all department measures were cut.
- Evers planned to continue the UW System tuition freeze, which has locked the price of tuition since 2013. He allocated $190 million more for the university system, which Republicans cut to around $8 million.
- Division of Motor Vehicles offices would have instituted automatic voter registration when updating other records under Evers’ budget.
- Evers’ budget eliminated the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment insurance and would have repealed drug testing to receive the benefits.
- GOP zeroed out money for doula services, black women and infant health grants and school breakfasts.
“The Republicans in this chamber were against Gov. Evers’ budget before they ever read it,” said Goyke before the debate began. “They define a Republican victory by a Tony Evers defeat.”
Goyke added that despite hearing from huge numbers of parents and educators about the need to fund special education which is a mandatory expense schools must borrow from other programs to fund, the special ed funding in the GOP bill represents a decrease “in raw dollars than they did in their previous budget two years ago.”
After the initial decimation of the Evers budget in April, Joint Finance went through department by department adding GOP priorities and cuts before taking a final vote on June 17.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), who sits on Joint Finance, called the governor’s budget “a pretty partisan policy document,” saying Republicans had the task of “turning it into a budget more like something we would do at home.” She said the changes “were about funding wants and needs — but not to any excess.”
A theme throughout the budget season was Republicans’ desire to wrest control of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money from the governor, who has the sole power to allocate those funds.
Wisconsin state government received $2.5 billion (reduced from an original $3.2 billion by the feds in May due to the state’s declining unemployment rate).
Republicans have passed bills allocating the money they don’t control and continued to argue throughout the budget process that if Evers felt an area such as education or homelessness prevention was not funded adequately, he should use federal funds to cover it.
Priorities altered by Republicans:
- The centerpiece added by the GOP budget is a $3.4 billion tax cut over two years funded with the influx of unexpected state revenue projections.
- Republicans budgeted $1.34 billion less than Evers for schools over the two years. Evers budgeted a $1.6 billion increase in funding for K-12 schools statewide. The Republicans changed that to $128 million and told schools they can use federal COVID relief funding to fill the gap. In describing their education budget, Republicans take credit for federal pandemic money, counting it as budget spending for ongoing expenses.
- Funding for special education was increased to 50% of the actual cost for public schools under Evers’ budget, while the GOP plan increased it by two percentage points to 30% and caps it even if expenses increase.
- Around $70 million in funds to combat homelessness in Evers’ budget was reduced to $1.2 million in additional money for housing assistance through the state.
- Evers proposed $10 billion to mitigate water contamination from PFAS “forever chemicals.” Most of that funding was cut by the GOP, which included approximately $1 million.
- Increases in the area of health care (over the last budget) include a rate increase for personal care workers, an increase in nursing home reimbursement rates, $2 million more for community health centers and $2 million for free/charitable clinics.
- Environmental preservation and land acquisition through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship would have been allotted $70 million annually for 10 years. Republicans proposed $32million annually for four years.
- Republicans budgeted $100 million for local roads with a 2% increase each year in General Transportation Aids.
- The two largest cities — Milwaukee and Madison — would see funding to their public transit systems sliced in half, eliminating $41 million from the two cities over two years. No other municipalities were cut.
“We possess today, the opportunity to change the course of our state for a generation,” said Goyke. “Never before have we had such plentiful resources to tackle head-on challenges that confront our people. And that’s going to be the true measure of our success in this budget — its impact.”
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Republicans’ biggest point of pride in their budget is its $3.4 billion tax cut over two years. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis of the cut shows that the majority — around 75% — would go to people making $100,000 or more a year.
Joint Finance designed the income tax cut by lowering the state tax rate for one tax bracket, which includes individuals making up to $263,000 and married couples making up to $351,000. They have also included a property tax cut in the first year of the budget that comes in at $100 on the average Wisconsin home and they include that amount in what the GOP describes as money for education. The second year that same home would see an increase around $30.
“Today Assembly Republicans are delivering on our promise,” JFC co-chair Rep. Mark Born said in advance of the vote. “We are passing a budget that keeps spending in check, cuts bureaucracy, funds Wisconsin’s priorities and delivers $3.4 billion in tax relief to Wisconsin individuals, families and businesses.”
Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) said that even though the funding on education was about one-tenth of what Evers requested, it “fulfills the priorities we heard,” on the budget committee.
In a pre-session news conference and in debate on the floor, Republicans took shots at federal aid and spending, saying it will drive up the national debt, while Democrats said that if Wisconsin didn’t take that money, it would simply be used by other states.
Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said she would vote no even if there were things in the budget she thinks are fine, and asked, “Are we striving toward mediocrity?”
Limiting Dems’ powers
If it seems strange that each body of the Legislature is scheduled to meet twice — once in regular session and once in an extraordinary session on the same day — there’s a reason for it: to limit what Democrats can do.
Four bills are moving “in tandem” with the massive budget bill, including one to eliminate the personal property tax that businesses pay on equipment. It has no relation to the property tax paid on housing. The separate bills passed, with three of them voted on after the budget around 10:30 pm.
The other bills fund employment insurance contribution rates, authorize a dredged management facility in Milwaukee and create a Legislative Office of Human Resources. Republicans admit they kept these items separate from the budget document because Evers can use his partial veto power on the budget, but he will only have the option of saying yes or no to these items as separate bills.
Republicans have been crafting their version of the budget with an eye toward using structure and wording to minimize creative actions Evers can take to influence the budget, beyond the option of a straight-up veto, which the governor indicated he’s considering due to the paltry funds the GOP allocated for education.
Two years ago, Evers was able to creatively use his partial-veto powers to add an additional $65 million to the budget for schools.
With the handful of Democrats voting in favor of the budget on Tuesday, a full veto appears highly unlikely. Without stating there would not be one, Hintz showed his hand by conveying to reporters what he was hearing from Republicans on what they would do if Evers had the temerity to veto the GOP budget.
Hintz said he’s concerned that in response to a veto, “I think there are a lot of people in their caucus who don’t care if we pass a budget or not,” so Republicans might just let the current budget stand, so Democrats have to “be the adults in the room” and take into account “the fact that these guys may never come back to the table and want to burn it all down, and that’s something I think we’d like to avoid.”
Vos, speaking to Democrats on the floor, also predicted that the governor would sign the GOP document: “I imagine some of you, maybe, will even vote yes. And that way, when Gov. Evers, probably, signs the work again of a conservative Republican Legislature, you can at least take partial credit for some of you supporting it.”
The first Democrat to say he would vote for the budget was Doyle, to cheers from Republicans on the floor. He said he disagreed with his colleagues that the budget would do serious harm, but he added, that he was not an enthusiastic vote. “I think we could have had a budget that did the best of all worlds,” he said, by investing more in education that would pay back dividends. “I have confidence our governor is going to use his veto pen to turn this into a budget that will be helpful.”
“Budgets are about priorities and the Republicans’ biggest priority has been doing everything possible to undermine this governor and to obstruct, oppose and minimize the success of Gov. Evers,” said Hintz.
After the vote, it’s likely all over but some more shouting in the Senate as it takes up the budget on Wednesday. And, likely, some partial vetoes, courtesy of Evers’ pen.
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