Which party’s vision will be imprinted on the ‘unprecedented’ state budget?

By: - July 2, 2021 6:51 am

Wisconsin flag photo by Blue Cheddar via Flickr CC BY 2.0

For legislative Republicans, the biennial budget passed by the Legislature this week represents an “historic investment,” while Democrats repeatedly called it a “missed opportunity.”

Both sides agreed that the flood of more than $5.3 billion flowing into state coffers this year was a surprise and “unprecedented,” a description that came from the longtime guru of state budgets, Legislative Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang.

Other frequent terms used by Republicans to talk about their budget were: Fiscally restrained, reasonable, responsible, realistic, back to basics, most conservative budget in years, returning money to taxpayers, no new government welfare, historic and transformational tax relief.

Sentiments repeatedly conveyed by Democrats on the budget included: inadequate for post-pandemic recovery, lacking prevention, short-sighted, no vision, ignoring public sentiment, refusing to address problems, a budget of less, un-Christian, privilege extended to the healthy and wealthy, focused on politics, fails to meet the moment.

Gov. Tony Evers gives his State of the State speech 1/12/21 (screenshot via YouTube)
Gov. Tony Evers

That said, one name —  Gov. Tony Evers — would dominate a word bubble on the budget debate. The 2022 gubernatorial election appeared to dictate more of the budget direction than the surplus, the pandemic or unaddressed needs.

Overall, the Democrats expressed disappointment that more than half of the roughly $5.3 billion in unexpected funds were being used for a tax cut, more than three-fourths of which will go to people making more than $100,000. They would have preferred — and in fact proposed in an alternative budget and amendments that got shot down — spending more on education, health care, broadband and the environment, along with a smaller tax cut weighted more toward the middle class and lower-income Wisconsinites.

“The disappointment that I think a lot of us have, not just in this room but around the state, is … it’s not within the context of the opportunity that we have,” said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz.

The state did not lack the revenue to meet Democrats’ goals — enough for Evers’ ambitious budget items plus a tax cut. The Democrats had even more to work with because their proposed plan utilized additional revenue from $1 billion in no-strings attached federal money for expanding BadgerCare plus an estimated $165 million in 2022 from legalizing cannabis to meet these goals. 

After shooting down all of the Democratic amendments to the budget in the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) and on the Assembly and Senate floors, Republicans adopted the budget that emerged from the committee with no changes, save for minor fixes. Even the final “wrap-up” motion in the finance committee, known as the 999, was straightforward compared to the past,  when it was abused to push through major policy or tax changes — such as the controversial and costly manufacturing and agricultural tax credit.

Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. Mark Born and Sen. Howard Marklein.

It was a straightforward, if not lackluster, budget devoid of partisan social policy. There was an overall spending increase of 5.4% for a total of $87.5 billion and in a departure from past budgets, most of the debate revolved around what could have been possible utilizing unprecedented money rather than pushing back against cuts made to current programs. The one exception to this was the funding — or lack thereof — for public schools.

The other thing cited as missing from the budget overall was a collective vision, said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). He mocked the GOP theme of ‘back to basics’ saying, “It’s like an admission of guilt that you don’t have any new ideas.”

“What’s the new idea? Where are you taking us? What’s your vision? We possess today the opportunity to change the course of our state for a generation,” he said. “Never before have we had such plentiful resources to tackle head-on those challenges that confront our people. …This budget fails to meet the moment.”

Rep. Evan Goyke (via Facebook)
Rep. Evan Goyke (via Facebook)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos dismissed Goyke’s concerns, calling Evers’ budget “a tired, liberal wish list.”

“I see the world as the glass is half full,” responded Vos. “He basically talked about the fact that Wisconsin has ‘storm clouds brewing.’ I don’t see storm clouds brewing … I think this budget is optimistic. It’s positive, it’s forward looking. And it addresses what we need to do in Wisconsin.”

On Thursday, after the budget votes were done, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu summed up the budget as “historic.” He and Joint Finance co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) both said the most important thing in the budget was the tax cut.

“We are excited about this budget … we’re excited that it received bipartisan support in both houses,” LeMahieu said. “And most importantly, if the governor vetoes this budget, we lose out on $3.4 billion of tax relief for the hard working people of the state of Wisconsin.”

Two views on schools

The way Republicans funded education has caused alarm among educators and public school advocates, even as Republicans pitched it as putting more money into schools than any time in decades. They plugged in federal money that the schools were already receiving for one-time pandemic expenses as operating funds, passed money through the schools that can’t be used by local districts except as  a property tax cut and set aside a $350 million slush fund in the Joint Finance Committee that could be used for education — or for any other purpose —  at a later date.

GOP post-budget news conference 2021

Of all the time and topics utilized during 17 hours of debate in both houses, the paltry amount of money spent on education — less than one-tenth of the what Evers asked for, and effectively a zero percent increase for local districts — was the Democrats’ top grievance. 

Rep. Sondy Pope

Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) an expert on state funding of education, said Republicans only provided the “bare minimum” required by federal guidelines to draw down federal funds and were set on doing even less until that issue was raised. Evers’ plan and the Democratic amendment put in an additional $800 million for schools and raised the revenue limit so those funds would go to the schools rather than a pass-through to buy down property taxes. 

“I know that you all will be taking victory laps and claiming you gave schools more funding, even though it was a fraction of what Gov. Evers recommended and includes federal funds intended for pandemic relief and remediation,” said Pope. “The citizens of Wisconsin have been demanding better and today Wisconsin can easily afford to do better. Classrooms are not your property-tax messaging tools. … Public education is not the public enemy.”

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), the vice-chair of the JFC, repeated the Republicans’ claim that the budget met the commitment of two-thirds funding of education by the state. “We achieved that goal that has been sort of out there for a number of years and we just were never able to get there.”

Rep. Mark Spreitzer
Rep. Mark Spreitzer

Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) accused Vos and the Republicans of using the school budget to get revenge on the winner of April’s Department of Public Instruction superintendent race, Jill Underly. After her victory, Vos tweeted “count me as someone who isn’t going to support putting another nickel into this unaccountable state bureaucracy.”

“We are here debating the result of an extended temper tantrum,” said Spreitzer. “Three months ago, our spring election took place and things didn’t go the way the gentleman from the 63rd [Vos] wanted. I get it. Sometimes the candidate I prefer doesn’t win. But lately, I know that Republicans have had a hard time accepting the results of elections.”

After seeing the GOP budget, he believes that Republicans were taking their frustrations out by not prioritizing schools or students. “Instead it attempts to skate by and put the bare minimum into our schools to check a box for federal funds. … This is what happens when temper tantrums are allowed to become the guiding principles of a political party.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) predicted that a budget that “fails our schools” will cause layoffs and cuts to the curriculum. “We are sitting on billions of dollars of taxpayer money and setting aside $350 million in a rainy day fund.” He suggested no one should take odds on any of that money being allocated to schools. Erpenbach told Republican senators they either needed to fund a much greater portion of special education, which is eating up an ever larger portion of school budgets, or raise the spending caps the state has imposed on local school districts — which Republicans have kept in place, meaning that the additional state funds they allocated for schools cannot be spent in the classroom.

Sen. Chris Larson

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said teachers have been treated poorly in Wisconsin by Republicans ever since Act 10, which took away their ability to bargain and led to early retirements, alienation and turnover. Describing the money being claimed for schools that will actually end up as a property tax cut, because school districts can’t spend it without the state raising  their revenue caps, he said “You are literally using the schools to pass money right through them — waving it under their nose and past them.” Larson described the move as seeing “a group of starving children and you give them Chuck E Cheese tokens that they can’t even spend on themselves.”

Larson added, “I’m not sure we should be celebrating zeros and saying that’s not a decrease.”

Vos said Democrats were asking for far too much for education. 

“We have great public schools,” he said. “This budget continues saying we have great public schools. Now, I understand that some of you think that the first draw on every single dollar should be going to public schools, I respect that. But this budget, more than any other one that we have seen in my lifetime, gives huge increases to public schools. Huge. More than they will probably be even able to effectively spend.”

Bathed in politics

Erpenbach, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, said after the JFC debate wrapped up that “it’s not that bad.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach. Photo from state legislature website.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach

The reaction he got from people who closely watched the process was primarily one of shock after the four JFC Democrats had spent several months talking about the multitude of things that were missing from the budget, criticizing how short-sighted Republicans were being and proposing dozens of amendments (which Republicans rejected).

It also set off insider chatter that Evers was going to sign the budget rather than veto it despite its education shortcomings — a theory that was given additional credence when seven Democratic legislators voted for the Republican budget, making it bipartisan. And one of them, pointed out LeMahieu, was the Senate minority leader, Janet Bewley. If further proof were needed that a veto is unlikely, Hintz and Vos indicated Evers would be signing it.

Several Republicans poked their Democratic colleagues with a reminder that two years ago, none of them had voted for the budget that Evers signed. It clearly had rankled Democratic legislators that they stood united against the budget and Evers signed it anyway, against his usual policy of only signing bills that arrive on his desk with bipartisan votes.

This time, some strategy may have been discussed beforehand as seven Democrats — who won by small margins in some of the only purple districts on the GOP gerrymandered maps — voted with their Republican colleagues, although they expressed regret that the budget wasn’t  better. 

When Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska) became the first Democrat to publicly say he was voting for the budget, his speech was far from a ringing endorsement. “I am voting for the budget, but I am doing it sadly,” announced Doyle during floor debate. “I have confidence that our governor is going to use his veto pen to turn this into a budget that will be helpful.”

headshot of Rep. Steve Doyle
Rep. Steve Doyle

The budget had not yet been sent to Evers as of Thursday evening. When he receives it, the clock starts ticking. He has six days excluding Sundays to review it and decide whether to veto it, sign it, or sign it with partial vetoes. When asked Thursday if the budget would be sent to the governor before the weekend, LeMahieu answered, “That has not been determined yet.”

Republicans were faced with the political quandary of crafting a budget that would give them things to brag about as they face re-election in 2022. But — despite the massive influx of revenue — would not give Evers much to campaign on, as he also is up for reelection next fall. 

Democrats repeatedly spoke of Evers, accusing Republicans of harming the state by not investing the huge revenue surplus because they didn’t want Evers to be able to take a victory lap.

Many Republicans, in giving their speeches on the budget, positioned their comments that were favorable to their budget in terms of what Evers would be losing if he vetoed the budget.

The budget working its way to the governor is not just a far cry from the budget Evers introduced in February, it is a Republican creation.

As Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys, from Madison, noted in her comments on the floor, contrary to what the public may imagine, this was not a budget of deals cut in inter-party wrangling in smoke-filled back rooms, because there were no Democrats involved. Republicans took Evers’ budget, labeled it a “liberal wish list,” and summarily dumped it in the trash and went “back to base.” That means they built their GOP budget from the skeleton of the last budget from two years ago, which, apart from some creative vetoes by Evers that netted schools an extra $65 million, was essentially the budget from four years ago built by former Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature.

That means Republicans built their budget on a plan in place long before the news broke about billions of dollars in additional revenue.

Sen. Devin LeMahieu

The Republicans also designed the budget to be partial-veto-proof, they admitted. LeMahieu noted the budget was just 400 pages (Evers, in contrast, was 1,864) and the majority of those pages are just figures of appropriations — money. Republicans were so intent on leaving Evers few, if any, veto options that they separated out four bills that Born said they would move ‘“in tandem” to avoid making them eligible for a partial veto.

“I think the intent of the Finance Committee the entire time was to produce a budget that did have very, very few new policies, new programs, very few words involved,” said LeMahieu. “The budget was 400 pages and most of that is essentially appropriations. The governor does have probably the broadest line item veto power in the country, but we’re confident that we have a good product and, for Wisconsin’s sake, he should sign it in its entirety.”

The will of which people?

During debate, Republicans and Democrats said they were focused on doing what the residents of Wisconsin asked for at public hearings, talked to them about in their districts and expressed in public opinion polls. 

Vos, in dismissing Evers’ budget, said it wasn’t what Wisconsin wanted — yet many of the items frequently arose at the dozens of listening sessions, where comments on public schools topped every list tallied afterward by budget committee staff. 

Other items Evers included, that Vos dismissed, routinely poll extremely high among Wisconsinites, including legalizing cannabis, non-partisan redistricting, accepting Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage, background checks for gun purchases and environmental protections.

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Over the months of continued positive financial news, including billions in federal COVID relief and billions more in unexpectedly strong tax revenue, legislators began thinking about how they would allocate those resources. In the end, the GOP opted for the $3 billion tax cut.

Democrats spent hours detailing a wide variety of needs they felt must be addressed, which they forwarded as amendments. They also remarked repeatedly about who would be the primary beneficiaries of GOP versus Democratic plans. 

The way that money was allocated — and whose lives it will improve and whose lives it will not help — was troubling to Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee).

She paged through Fiscal Bureau papers about the budget that she had highlighted during her work on the JFC, showing page after page of yellow highlighted text that detailed all the ways people of color are worse off than the vast majority of Wisconsinites — including statistics that show  Wisconsin is the worst place to raise a Black child. 

She said she saw no vision for improving the state —  let alone communities of color — coming out of Joint Finance in its budget.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson

“When I look at the budget that we passed in Joint Finance, all I can see is who was left out,” said Johnson, who jokingly pointed out to her Senate colleagues in case they needed reminding that she’s Black. But the laughter faded as she began to detail all of the unmet, vital needs she sees and hears about in her district and elsewhere — and all the studies that have revealed how poorly Wisconsin does when it comes to the Black community’s health and well-being. 

“One of the things that I admire about the governor, one of the things that I admired about his budget is because, as the governor of the state, he was elected to represent the best interests of all Wisconsinites,” Johnson continued. “He doesn’t have the privilege of just being concerned about his own individual district, because the entire state is his district. And when we draft the budget in JFC, a lot of times we go at it thinking about our own particular district. And if we are not a member of the majority party, sometimes our district gets left out. Sometimes an entire class of people gets left out. Communities of color get left out, let down, budget after budget after budget.”

Many items that were cut from Evers’ budget — such as doulas, Birth to Three expansion and community health workers — would have begun to address the health crisis for Black parents and children. Evers also created equity positions in departments that did not have them with the goal of addressing disparities. All of it was cut.

Janet Bewley on the Senate floor.

Johnson read every single one of her highlighted statistics on disparities to the entire Senate and concluded, “I know that that was a long speech. And I don’t apologize for it. Now we all know. And we all know that there will be an additional two years that our communities of color will get no help for these disparities, because they were left out. And they were left out on purpose.”

Minority Leader Bewley, although she voted for the budget in the end, praised the priorities for the state in Evers’ version of the budget.

“The governor looks at the past, the present and the future,” said Bewley. “The Joint Finance budget looks at today. It’s a thin, inadequate budget. Our state is worth the governor’s budget.” 

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Melanie Conklin
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.

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