Education spending, shared revenue recurring issues in budget listening session
Crowd at the first Joint Finance Committee listening session in Waukesha. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
WAUKESHA — The Joint Finance Committee spent eight hours hearing from Wisconsinites during its first budget listening session at the Waukesha Expo Center on Wednesday.
Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) did not offer specific thoughts about individual budget items prior to the start of the session, saying they’re still in the phase of “gathering information.”
“We really haven’t started the active discussions and negotiations on specific amounts on things in the budget. That really comes after the activity of this month, after gathering that information,” Born said. “That’s the next phase and we’re certainly looking forward to that but we don’t want to bypass these opportunities to hear from the people of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin residents — who had two minutes each to make their case — brought up increasing revenue caps for schools, raising the special education reimbursements, increasing shared revenue funding, the Child Care Counts program and expanding Badgercare.
Lawmakers didn’t comment between speakers with so many people slated to speak. At 2:48 p.m., the committee was just hearing from speakers who had signed up at 8:30 a.m. — an hour and a half before the start of the session — and the committee had to extend the session an additional hour.
Public school advocates, superintendents and other officials urged lawmakers to include an increase in per-pupil spending caps, special education funding and mental health investments in the budget.
Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Public School Board, said during a press conference that students deserve quality teachers, small class sizes, librarians, music and art teachers and adequate special education funding.
“We need the Joint Finance Committee and the state Legislature — which has a moral and civic and legal responsibility — to provide adequate funding for all public schools throughout the state of Wisconsin,” Peterson said. “Public schools have been, and must continue to be, the bedrock of our democracy. Please, please provide a real civics lesson for all our students in Wisconsin and adequately fund our public schools.”
Advocates said they were asking the committee to either meet or surpass the bar set in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal.
Keeping up with inflation
Evers proposed an increase of more than $2.6 billion total for public schools, including $1 billion for the state’s general equalization aid formula, more than $1 billion for special education funding and an increase in schools’ per pupil revenue limit by $350 in the first year of the budget and an additional $650 in the second year.
Wisconsin Public Education Network executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane said at a press conference that raising the caps on spendable aid is especially important since it didn’t happen in the last budget.
“Lifting revenue limits to allow districts to actually spend the aid that they’re receiving is absolutely critical, and that’s what the state did not do in the previous budget,” DuBois Bourenane said. “It was essentially local property tax relief disguised as state aid.”
Republicans included an increase in school aid during the last budget, but not an increase in the amount districts were allowed to spend per student. Additional aid could only be used for property tax cuts for those districts that had already reached their spending caps.
DuBois Bourenane also said it would take at least a $1,500 per student increase just to keep up with inflation since the last budget.
“Anything less than that is a cut,” DuBois Bourenane said. “If we aren’t matching the inflationary needs of our kids and their public schools, we’re taking resources away, and so that is our minimum expectation.”
Rebecca Toetz, superintendent of DeForest public schools, said the increases would help schools meet the costs of staffing, transportation and energy costs, while making up for years of not funding public schools appropriately. She also highlighted the importance of increasing special education reimbursements from 30 cents to 60 cents in the first year of the budget and to 90 cents in the second years.
Toetz told the committee that her district raised hourly wages last year, but even after that schools still have vacancies and a “revolving door” in assistant positions.
Putting special education ‘at risk’
“This puts the entire special education program at risk when students experience constant changes with turnover of their support staff,” Toetz said. “The special education teachers also start to burn out as they work to onboard, train and retain their assistants. If special education were fully funded, this would allow for districts to pay competitive wages, provide extra paid training days and purchase quality materials to meet the unique needs of our students.”
A large group of attendees wearing green t-shirts advocated for increasing spending for charter and private voucher schools. Anthony McHenry, CEO of Milwaukee Academy of Science, said the group is looking for “equal school funding.” He said charter and private schools should receive the same amount of funding per pupil as public schools.
“At minimum, what that does allow us to serve our current kids, better provide more supports and resources for our kids and staff,” McHenry said. “But [it] also may create opportunities to be able to expand and serve more kids.”
Republican lawmakers have said in the past that they would like to see an expansion of Wisconsin’s school choice program alongside investments in public schools.
Plea for Medicaid expansion
Several attendees spoke about the importance of having Wisconsin join the 40 other states that already accepted the federal Medicaid expansion.
“North Carolina just this past week has accepted the Medicaid expansion,” Dr. Lynn Carey of Germantown told the committee. “Expanding Medicaid — or Badgercare — would provide coverage to almost 90,000 Wisconsinites. It would also, as you all know, bring in billions of dollars to our state in federal support and state aid.”
Evers has repeatedly proposed taking the federal Medicaid expansion.
Becky Cooper, a member of Main Street Alliance, a small business advocacy organization, said the expansion could help her employees access health care. She said she employs 27 people at her business, Bounce MKE. While her business offers to pay for 80% of her employees’ health insurance, she said it is still out of reach for some of her employees because the cost of private health insurance is so expensive.
“The expansion of Badgercare would mean we would have so many more employees that would have health care coverage,” Cooper said. “For me, that means employees who are using fewer sick days because they’re taking care of their health issues before they become significant. It means that we have employees who are taking care of mental health needs, who are covering their children as needed and it would also take a financial burden off of us so that we can use that money in a wiser way.”
Many local government officials, including Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, spoke about the strain that a lack of funding increases for the last several decades has had on local governments including fire and public safety services.
“The 2023-2025 state budget presents an opportunity for us to have stable future local governments provide basic services… to our residents, and to our visitors,” Johnson said. “My top priority as mayor of the city of Milwaukee is to increase public safety as well as addressing the city’s financial situation. By supporting an increase in shared revenue within the state budget, you can enable all communities around the entire city of Wisconsin to invest in their core services.”
Boosting shared revenue
Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow asked lawmakers to keep shared revenue as a top priority and spoke about how portions of local governments’ budgets have been consumed by mandates that are unfunded by the state. Farrow said the shared revenue formula could be essential to helping local municipalities.
“In Waukesha County, 42% of the mandates from the state are paid for by our property taxes,” Farrow said. “We are funding these priorities, which may or may not be the county’s or the local constituents’ priorities.”
Evers proposed boosting state aid to local governments by over $500 million by dedicating 20% of Wisconsin’s sales tax revenue to shared revenue. The plan would likely allow local governments to see a yearly increase in the amount they receive from the state since sales tax revenue tends to grow each year.
“We have seen great efforts and great work on the shared revenue formula, and I appreciate the leadership from many individuals up here on the stage who have taken upon to look at that change,” Farrow said. “We heard in the governor’s budget plan that he is looking at his shared revenue change. I’m hoping that you’ll continue to look at the shared revenue plan and ensure that we have an opportunity as local municipalities and counties to share the strength that we have throughout Waukesha County.”
Some other issues brought up at the session included Evers’ proposal to provide drivers licenses for all, funding the Child Care Counts program and funding mental health priorities.
The JFC will host three other listening sessions throughout the month in Eau Claire, Wisconsin Dells and Minocqua. The committee will then spend the next several months debating and rewriting Evers’ proposed budget. The Republican leaders on the committee have said they plan to start from scratch.
Once the JFC is finished with its work, the Legislature will vote on the spending plan and send it to Evers to be signed. The budget deadline is July 1.
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