Democrats’ bid to push child care funding turns into argument about state marketing efforts

By: - May 26, 2023 6:00 am
Sen. LaTonya Johnson

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) tells Joint Finance Committee lawmakers why committee Democrats tried to put $340 million in child care funds into the state’s economic development agency budget. (Screenshot | WisEye)

Wisconsin’s economic development agency will have to spend at least $4 million over the next two years on “talent attraction and retention” programs to attract workers to come to Wisconsin for jobs under a budget measure that lawmakers approved Thursday.

The measure requires the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) to spend at least half of the talent attraction money on drawing veterans to the workforce. It’s part of a $19 million increase to the WEDC’s funding over the next two years in the provision, which passed the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) with only Republican votes.

In addition to WEDC, Thursday’s committee session drew up the spending plans for the Department of Revenue and for the trust funds for state employee benefits.

Most of the time that the JFC spent discussing the WEDC budget, however, focused on a Democratic proposal intended to call attention to what has become a central concern for advocates and for the Democrats: bolstering Wisconsin’s struggling child care providers and the families who depend on them.

The Democrats framed their proposal as an investment in talent attraction, too — keying in on what has become a favorite catch phrase of GOP lawmakers in debates over Wisconsin’s workforce shortage for the last several years. The motion called for giving WEDC $340 million over the two-year budget “for talent attraction and retention initiatives.” 

The written measure did not specify what the money would be used for, but in the comments that followed, the Democratic lawmakers made clear that it was a bid to force discussion on extending Wisconsin’s Child Care Counts stabilization money.

“These dollars will partner with the private sector to solve [problems] facing our shrinking workforce,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) as he made the first pitch for the provision.

Goyke and other Democrats emphasized the state’s aging adult population and the migration of younger adults out of state, while employers report an estimated 230,000 unfilled job openings.

“If we’re not having babies, we have to attract families and people to fill these jobs into our state,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). “But instead people are running as fast as they can to get the hell away from Wisconsin.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed budget included $340 million to extend Child Care Counts, which was launched with pandemic relief money that will run out early next year. 

When the JFC’s Republican leaders threw out more than 500 of Evers’ budget provisions at the start of their own budget drafting process, they left a line intact for the child care aid, but reduced the funding to zero, to be addressed later.

At listening sessions that the JFC conducted in April before the committee began its budget-writing, “something we heard over and over and over again, in every community was the need to invest in child care,” said Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha).

With 70% of rural Wisconsin “a child care desert,” said Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), “Currently, the situation is unsustainable. And if we don’t take action as a committee, and start ensuring that there’s going to be stable childcare for people across the state, we’re going to face an even more dire workforce quantity shortage.”

Talent attraction clash

Republicans responded first to the Democrats’ proposal by seizing on their use of  “talent attraction.”

In Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s last year in office, WEDC launched a talent attraction marketing program authorized by the Legislature to pitch Wisconsin to veterans completing their military service and to young adults in the Midwest. The first $6.8 million appropriated for the program was spent by the end of 2019, Evers’ first year in office, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

In the 2021-23 state budget, the Republican-led JFC required WEDC to spend $3 million on talent attraction initiatives from its existing revenues. Evers vetoed a bill in April 2022 demanding a report within 30 days on the WEDC’s plans and called it an attempt by the Legislature to micromanage the program.

According to WEDC, 16 matching grants of up to $75,000 each for workforce marketing have been  distributed to organizations across the state, including chambers of commerce and economic development groups, under the program. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported in March that the 2021-23 funds also have gone to a national and Midwest media campaign and outreach with the Department of Military Affairs to military personnel. 

JFC co-chair Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), however, dismissed what he called “the Evers administration’s failings” in carrying out the Legislature’s talent attraction demands. Then Born added: “I cannot imagine why it would be a good idea to throw $340 million at an agency who up until the last — maybe year, I think it’s more like months — has done nothing on this.”

Calling child care “certainly an important issue,” Born then mocked the Democrats’ attempt to link it to drawing prospective workers to Wisconsin and keep Wisconsin workers on the job.

“What in the world would make us think that an agency who has done almost nothing on talent attraction, and has no involvement in child care now, would, [by] giving them $340 million … somehow they’re going to help the child care challenge? Are they taking this over from DCF [the Department of Children and Families]?”

Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), the other committee co-chair, called the Democrats measure “a reckless, reckless motion,” then launched into a criticism of WEDC’s Vibrant Spaces grant program for communities to make themselves more attractive by sprucing up public spaces, parks, adding sidewalks or new public signage.

“Signage, sidewalk extensions — really brings people in, doesn’t it?” Marklein said sarcastically.

It fell to Johnson to connect the dots. 

“The reason that we put $340 million into this proposal is because we are afraid that my colleagues” — the Republican lawmakers — “will screw up Child Care Counts. This allows us to put money for child care into the budget,” Johnson said sharply. “The $340 million will stop 25% of our child care centers from closing, which will allow their parents to remain in the workforce.”

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After the Democrats’ WEDC motion failed 4-12, the Republicans passed theirs 12-4. The entire $19 million increase is drawn from increased revenues in the surcharge that is assessed against corporations to fund WEDC. The agency’s total two-year budget from the surcharge revenue will be $93 million, according to the fiscal bureau

While Evers had proposed $10 million in state general funds for talent attraction programs in the 2023-25 budget, the GOP motion eliminated all general purpose revenue from the agency. 

The GOP measure also includes a provision forbidding WEDC from spending any more money on the Vibrant Spaces grants.

Taxes and Wisconsin Eye

In other budget action Thursday, the Republicans declined to convert 38 long-term temporary positions in the Department of Revenue  into permanent positions. The expiration date for the positions, which have been authorized since 2017,  was extended from June 30 to Sept. 30, 2025,  three months after the start of the 2025-27 budget. 

They also rejected adding 11 positions to the department to increase delinquent tax collection, which would cost $1.5 million over two years. According to the fiscal bureau, the additions were projected to boost delinquent tax collections by $20 million over the two-year period. Democrats proposed both changes in their package for the department, which failed 4-12.

McGuire said he was “troubled” by that outcome.

Improving collection of back taxes is “part of making this whole state fairer,” McGuire said. “And for all the working people that are paying their taxes right now to know that their neighbor might not be, and that there’s no one holding them accountable in state government, is very disappointing.”

While disagreeing on every other measure, Republicans and Democrats were unanimous on one budget item Thursday — a $10 million one-time grant to a new endowment fund supporting WisconsinEye that will end the service’s paywall.

The nonprofit network televises Legislature floor sessions and committee meetings as well as providing other programming related primarily to state government. Its annual budget of $1.1 million is supported by charitable donations and a couple of major sponsors. 

The grant is to be met by an equal amount in private donations to a special endowment named for the late Margaret Farrow, a Republican state senator and later lieutenant governor. Farrow was “instrumental” in the launch of WisconsinEye in 2007, the network said in an announcement Thursday.

“This is a huge opportunity for WisconsinEye,” the network’s CEO, Jon Henkes, told the Wisconsin Examiner, and will give the service “a solid foundation upon which we will greatly expand” its mission of providing open access to state government for residents of Wisconsin.

The network has received state funds only twice before, Henkes said, once to pay for new equipment and once to make up for a drop in donations during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The network credited Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek) and Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) with authoring the budget amendment for the grant. 

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.

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