Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2021-23 biennial budget at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, after making 50 partial vetoes (screenshot | Gov. Evers Facebook video)
Gov. Tony Evers signed the state budget on Thursday at an elementary school in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitewater, emphasizing the importance of funding for schools and handing out pens to a group of schoolchildren who stood behind him.
“I am proud to be the ‘Education Governor,’ and I believe, as I have often said, that what’s best for our kids is what’s best for our state,” Ever said. “So, this budget begins and ends where it always does for me – with education.”
Evers signed the budget only after using his line-item veto to remove 50 provisions, and acknowledged that the Legislature had tied his hands, since a full veto would make Wisconsin ineligible for billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds. Just before the signing ceremony, news broke that some of those funds could be in jeopardy anyway since the budget passed by the Legislature might not fund low-income school districts at a high enough level to qualify for federal COVID relief.
Evers used one of his partial vetoes to retrieve $550 million the Republicans had put in the state’s rainy day fund, and asked the Legislature to work with him to allocate more of that money to schools, small businesses, and pandemic recovery.
“We will now start this fiscal year with a $2.39 billion dollar general fund surplus — the largest opening balance in Wisconsin history,” Evers pointed out in a statement after signing the budget. He and some Democrats hold out hope that there could be a bipartisan agreement on additional spending for schools when the Legislature reconvenes next week. But public school advocates are wary, and one group of local school officials announced they would file a lawsuit over the state’s inadequate funding for education in the budget, which they say violates the state constitution.
Evers praised Republicans in the Legislature for finally adopting a longstanding recommendation of the Republican-led bipartisan blue ribbon commission on school funding, saying, “I am proud that after providing several opportunities to meet this obligation during my time as governor, Republicans in the Legislature have decided to join me in restoring two-thirds funding for our schools, and we will finally be hitting that mark in the next biennium for the first time in two decades.”
But the two-thirds funding claim is “a meaningless gesture,” says public schools advocate Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, since the Legislature did not lift revenue caps on school districts that limit what they can spend. The revenue caps prevent schools from getting access to additional state funds earmarked for education. Instead, those funds will finance a local property tax cut.
“While it’s good the state has met that [two-thirds funding] benchmark, and in the future schools could theoretically spend that money, it’s not happening now,” DuBois Bourenane says.
Public school advocates praised Evers’ veto of the transfer of $550 million to the state’s rainy day fund, where it can be used for any purpose. “I object to making these funds unavailable for supporting the needs of Wisconsinites that the Legislature failed to address,” Ever wrote in his statement explaining the partial vetoes.
“I request the Legislature work with me to instead invest these funds to address the immediate needs of Wisconsinites,” he added.
Evers also announced, while signing the budget, that he is allocating an additional $100 million to schools from a separate pot of federal money over which he has discretion.
“The future of our kids is paramount, and this investment will provide critically important resources in light of Republicans’ education cuts,” Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) said in a statement praising Evers for directing the federal funds to schools, and for his vetoes.
“At the same time, we know that much more school funding is needed to avoid cuts and layoffs in the next two years,” Hintz added. “Through today’s partial vetoes, Gov. Evers has put the legislature in a position to restore more of the school funding that Republicans cut from his original budget. I call on legislative Republicans to act immediately to fund our schools and invest in our kids’ future.”
Among Evers’ other vetoes was $750,000 for Lakeland STAR Academy, a charter school in Minocqua. “I object to providing state grants to specific schools when the Legislature has provided limited new spending to Wisconsin’s public school system as a whole,” Evers said in his veto statement. “Every kid in Wisconsin should be able to get a great education in a public school regardless of what district they live in, and state funding decisions should not pick winners and losers among our kids.”
Legislature’s ‘second chance’
With the $550 million back in play because of Evers’ partial veto, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Bend) says he is optimistic that Republicans will respond to pressure from parents and school officials in their districts to increase education funding.
“Not many people get a second chance to do the right thing. And, you know, hopefully they’ll do the right thing,” Erpenbach says.
Republicans could be motivated to put more money into education, not just because of pressure from local school districts, Erpenbach says, but also because of a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis showing that the budget Evers signed just barely conforms to federal “maintenance of effort” requirements that specify how much the state has to spend on its schools in order to qualify for billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds. If spending increases in other areas, the portion of the budget allocated to school spending will also have to go up in order to meet the federal standard. Otherwise, the state could lose $2.3 billion in federal funding.
“That’s why I feel a little bit better that if any of that money is going to be spent it’ll be spent on K-12 funding,” Erpenbach says.
Chris Theil, legislative policy analyst for the Milwaukee Public Schools points out that the total available balance in the state’s general funds is more than $1 billion, since there was already about $450 million left over before Evers transferred the additional $550 million from the state’s rainy day fund. The rainy day fund itself still contains another $1.5 billion. In other words, state coffers are full.
“It’s just a question of why can’t we support kids in this moment of opportunity,” says Thiel. “It’s not a partisan issue. There is bipartisan agreement, at least on paper, that we need to increase support for students with disabilities and at least the per pupil amount. Whatever is preventing us from being able to get there, we need to overcome it.”
At least one Republican legislator, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), has publicly supported using the money her colleagues had transferred to the rainy day fund for special education reimbursements and per-pupil funding.
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“These critical investments in the classroom will help offset the loss of revenue from COVID-19 expenses and address the learning loss that took place last year,” Darling said in a statement on June 8. “This investment will ensure we receive the full amount of funding available from the federal government while also giving schools the ability to plan for the future.”
New wrinkle on federal funds
New guidance from the U.S. Department of Education has added yet another “wrinkle in the debate over education funding” WisPolitics reported on Thursday morning.
Citing the new guidance from the Biden administration, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has said it is unclear if the budget achieves a benchmark that requires states to maintain aid to high-poverty districts, once again putting federal funds in doubt, WisPolitics reported.
DPI is still working through calculations to determine whether the state meets a requirement of the American Rescue Plan Act designed to make sure schools in high-poverty districts don’t see a decrease in state funding below what they received in 2018-19.
Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) responded angrily to the news from DPI. In a joint statement reported by Wispolitics, the Republican legislators said the Evers administration had not submitted a final plan for allocating federal funds to districts “in hopes that the Biden administration will help him move the goalposts once again.”
(Born and Marklein earlier expressed confidence that the federal government would not force Wisconsin to conform to federal rules on school funding. But Republicans made changes to that budget after it passed the Joint Finance Committee to meet the requirements after the feds warned that billions in COVID aid were at risk.)
“It’s sad that Governor Evers is playing politics with this K-12 funding plan,” Born and Marklein said in their statement.
In the Republican press conference celebrating the signing of the “historic budget and tax cut” on Thursday, Born did not mention schools at all. Reeling off the accomplishments in the Republican budget, Born emphasized investments in health care and local roads along with the large tax cuts. Born called it “laughable and hypocritical” that Evers took credit for the Republicans’ “historic tax cut,” and criticized Evers’ partial vetoes, saying, “he still couldn’t resist keeping more money for government.”
Still, “at the end of the day we’re pleased the governor was forced to sign a reasonable, responsible and realistic budget,” Born said.
While Evers held out hope for a bipartisan compromise, Republicans sounded combative: “Governor Tony Evers deserves NO credit for signing our budget,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said in a statement. “This was not a bipartisan process of colleagues sharing ideas. He got boxed into a corner and rather than fight for his unpopular budget and risk a political knockout, he and his team threw in the towel and signed our responsible budget.”
“He is not a fighter,” LeMahieu added. “He is not a leader. He did not sign our conservative budget out of bipartisan motives. He is merely sensible enough to recognize a better budget when he sees one.”
Erpenbach, from the other side of the aisle, called it “hypocritical” that Republicans bragged about transferring money to the rainy day fund when state coffers are full, instead of spending it or giving it back to taxpayers. The only reason to sit on all that money, he says, is so they can take control of it later. “They’re bragging about a $2 billion savings account for the next governor, who they don’t want to be Tony Evers,” he says. “Part of the reason why I think they took as much as they can and tried to set it aside is they’re counting on a Republican governor to come in and spend that money.”
Lawsuit over school funding
Meanwhile, the fight over funding for schools continues outside the Capitol. The Wisconsin Association for Equity in Funding (WAEF), a group of urban, suburban and rural school districts that seeks equity in the state’s system of school financing, announced on Thursday that it is planning to file a lawsuit over the state budget.
“To put so few new state dollars into addressing these school funding challenges, at a time when state coffers overflow, is more than disappointing, it calls for a strong response,” John Gaier, superintendent of the Neillsville School District and president of the AEF steering committee said in a statement.
Citing a landmark Wisconsin Supreme Court case that held that “Wisconsin students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity to a sound basic education that will equip students for their roles as citizens and enable them to succeed economically and personally,” the group said in its statement, “That standard is clearly not being met.”
“Now, in a watershed moment, with billions of dollars available, legislative leaders have turned their backs on the Supreme Court directive, the Blue Ribbon Commission, and their own agreements to improve the inequitable system of school finance in Wisconsin,” the group added. “With Governor Evers’ signature on the budget bill, AEF is alerting the public that the legislature can no longer kick the can down the road — it’s time to demand action through the courts, since legislative options are clearly not going to happen.”
DuBois Bourenane of Wisconsin Public Education Network calls the budget Evers signed a “terrible budget for kids.”
“It will make existing gaps wider and it provides illusory aid that’s funding in name only, that won’t get into classrooms in the state. So it’s nothing to brag about,” she says.
When the Legislature convenes next week, “there’s a lot that they could do,” she adds.
“There’s a way, but is there a will?” DuBois Bourenane says. “We’ve seen Wisconsin lawmakers make the wrong choice time and time again.
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