Finance committee splits along party lines on workforce, veterans and other budget items
A Madison College apprentice in the construction trades. The Legislature's joint finance committee boosted money to technical colleges in the next state budget Tuesday, but by a fraction of what Gov. Tony Evers had requested. (Photo courtesy of Madison College)
Lawmakers writing the next state budget battled Tuesday over how to make it easier for employers to fill job vacancies, how to better serve state veterans, how to help the state regulate the insurance industry and how to support Wisconsin’s college and technical college students.
The Republican majority on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved a series of spending plans that they said would address those subjects. But having previously thrown out hundreds of other proposals that Gov. Tony Evers had included, they allocated far less than he had called for on most of the remaining items on the day’s agenda.
While the Republicans boasted of their proposals that increased spending compared with the state’s 2021-23 budget, Democrats repeatedly highlighted the gap between what the GOP did and what Evers had asked for in February.
Before the meeting, the budget committee’s co-chairs, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) pointed to their plan to raise general state aid to technical colleges. “We’re investing in things that work,” Marklein told reporters. “We’re happy to increase the funding over the next two years.”
Evers had proposed hiking the technical college aid by $32.9 million a year. By contrast, the committee Republicans increased that aid $3.1 million in the first year of the two-year budget and another $6.3 million in the second year.
“I think we’d like to make good investments in a variety of important areas and make it all work with an entire budget using real numbers,” Born said when he was asked before the meeting about the gap between the two plans. “We’re not going to build a budget on fake numbers like the governor’s.”
As part of their competing budget motion that included the technical college funding, the committee’s four Democrats adopted Evers’ proposed figure. After it was voted down 4-12 and the Republicans rolled out their version, Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) asked a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analyst how the two compared. The answer: The GOP version was one-tenth of the governor’s first-year proposal and one-fifth of the second-year amount.
“To me, this is just crazy that in a time when we have a huge fiscal surplus — almost $7 billion — and a huge workforce quantity shortage with record low unemployment and employers desperate to find workers in virtually every sector, and we’re seeing [the] outmigration of young people [from the state], that we’re going to fund between one-fifth and one-tenth of the proposed amount by the governor… you can’t say you care about our workforce quantity shortage, ” Roys said.
The budget motions and discussion followed that pattern throughout the meeting, which was finished in less than two hours.
Wisconsin’s workforce was the dominant theme in Tuesday’s budget votes, not just on the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD), but in other areas as well, in what was a remarkably fractious session of an already fractious Legislature.
The contrasting proposals from Democrats — consistently voted down 4-12 — and Republicans — consistently passed 12-4 — quickly revealed the widely divergent visions between the two parties on how to address the chronic and widespread complaint among employers that they cannot find enough workers.
Three weeks ago the Republicans scrapped at least $260 million in proposals from Gov. Tony Evers expanding programs the administration launched two years ago to boost training and address barriers to work such as child care and transportation. Other Evers proposals include a green jobs training program, new apprenticeship programs for information technology and health care and adding more personnel to the state’s job centers, where job seekers can go to connect with employers seeking workers.
The Evers administration has said its proposals would enable more people to enter the workforce.
The Democrats on the committee said a broad array of state policies and conditions were driving young adults out of state to look for work.
They turned the discussion of the DWD budget into a wider argument that ranged from Evers’ proposal to establish a largely self-paid family leave program for workers to the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
Democrats proposed that DWD hire an economist “to study the economic benefit to the State of having paid family leave accessible” compared with the potential loss of families to Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota — states which have all instituted such policies.
Marklein ruled Roys out of order on that motion because the GOP majority had already taken the family leave proposal out of the budget. Democrats protested that the proposed study wasn’t part of the Evers proposal and pursued the argument.
“Wisconsinites support this popular policy,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). “And you all won’t even let us have a debate about it.”
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When Goyke pressed on a few minutes later, recalling that Republican candidate Tim Michels during the 2022 governor’s race expressed support for paid family leave, Marklein cut his microphone.
Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) called the family leave proposal “lunacy personified” and claimed it would result in workers having to “support those who don’t really want to work or can’t work.” Goyke, his microphone restored, said that was the opposite of what it would do.
“It’s not a public benefit, welfare — it’s earned,” Goyke said of the proposal. “Workers pay into it, and they get that back when they need it.” Failure to adopt policies that help workers, especially those with families, is causing workers to flee Wisconsin, he said.
Gyoke then turned back to Marklein. “You can turn off my microphone all you want, you can silence the debate and have procedural motions. You guys have buried your head in the sand on this issue. You lost in November. You got trounced in April. The more you silence us, the more you turn off my microphone, the more elections you’re going to lose, because the people in the state of Wisconsin want action on this issue.”
Republicans zeroed out a $1 million increase that Evers had proposed for DWD’s Wisconsin Fast Forward training grants for employers and cut another $1 million in addition, bringing the total budget item back to $5.3 million per year.
They added money to the department’s youth apprenticeship program, however, increasing it by $7 million over two years.
“Our motion funds proven programs that have been successful and we’re delighted to put more money into them,” Marklein said.
In addition to the Department of Workforce Development and the technical college system, Tuesday’s finance committee votes covered the state insurance and veterans departments as well as college and university aid.
In the Department of Veterans Affairs, Evers proposed $10 million in additional funding for the state’s veterans homes, as well as a study of the home in King. As passed by the Republicans, the department would get a $2.5 million infusion.
The GOP measure also specifies the study must be done by an outside vendor. The veterans homes have been the subject of recent news reports about poor care, leading lawmakers to call for an audit of the homes.
At the meeting’s end, Marklein asked Bob Lang, the Legislature’s chief fiscal analyst, where the budget, and the state’s surplus, currently projected at $6.9 billion, stood “if we shut it down today.”
“I think obviously the committee’s got a ways to go,” said Lang. But with no more changes to the base 2021-23 budget, Lang said, that would leave “around $11 billion or so remaining.”
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