Bills to increase funding for local government and choice schools pass Legislature

By: - June 15, 2023 5:45 am

Senate lawmakers during the first floor session of the session on January 17, 2023. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Wisconsin’s Legislature passed a bill that will increase state aid to local government and allow Milwaukee to raise its local sales tax on Wednesday night, following months of negotiations that culminated in a deal struck between Republican leaders and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

As a part of that deal, lawmakers passed another bill that would increase state funding for private choice schools and independent charter schools and per-pupil revenue limits for school districts. 

The bills are on track to head to Evers’ desk for signing. 

Amended shared revenue bill

The shared revenue bill, AB-245, which would dedicate 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax to local government funding, passed the Senate in a 21-12 vote Wednesday evening. 

The amended legislation was in line with the proposal announced last week by Republican leaders and Evers. Under the bill, Wisconsin local municipalities with a population under 110,000 would receive a minimum increase of 20% of their existing county and municipal aid payment. 

The bill would not have passed without the votes of six Democrats — Sens. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire), LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and Robert Wirch (D-Somers). Seven Republicans — Sens. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin), Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) and Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond) — voted against the measure

Jacque said in a statement that he voted against the bill because of the Milwaukee provisions, which are meant to help the city pay for its unfunded pension mandates as well as public safety costs. 

“It is extremely disappointing that needed reforms to the state shared revenue formula have been held hostage to backroom deals that ostensibly bail out Milwaukee after decades of fiscal mismanagement,” Jacque said in a statement. “In the end, that was too high a price to pay for me to support this legislation.”

Milwaukee and Milwaukee County leaders have warned of the dire consequences, including drastic cuts to its police and fire forces as well as cuts to local services like the library, ahead for the state’s most populous community if it has no way of raising new funds. The city’s situation has been created by its inability to keep up with its pension obligations as well as other costs and factors.

The bill would give the city and the county a mechanism to begin addressing that problem by allowing Milwaukee County a 0.4% sales tax increase and Milwaukee an additional 2% sales tax.

The bill requires the Milwaukee Common Council and the Milwaukee County Board to approve the taxes with a two-thirds majority vote. Previous versions of the bill would have required voters to approve the tax; however, local and state leaders advocated for removing that condition due to concerns the referendum wouldn’t pass.

Democrats criticized several measures in the bill that would curb local authority, including a provision banning  local governments from holding advisory referenda, a restriction forbidding public health officers from issuing mandates to close a business to control the spread of a communicable disease for more than 30 days and provisions specific to the city of Milwaukee. Those include curbing the city’s ability to dedicate funds to its streetcars and requiring the Milwaukee Public School system to hire at least 25 school resource officers. 

“This Frankenstein monster of a bill should be slaughtered,” Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said.

‘Some tough pills to swallow’ 

Spreitzer criticized the ban on local advisory referenda, pointing out that they have helped the towns in his district come to decisions about certain policies. 

“You are banning the 25 towns that I represent from asking their residents if they want ATVs on their town roads, and I don’t know why a single person in this room would want to do that, but that’s what this bill does.” Spreitzer said. “So this is a tough vote. There are some tough pills to swallow in this bill.” 

While the first draft of the bill completely banned local advisory referenda, the version passed on Wednesday would allow referendum questions related to revenue sharing agreements, the operation of a cable system by a municipality, the provision of video service, telecommunications service or Internet access service directly or indirectly to the public by a municipality or supporting the operation of a municipal telecommunications utility.

Democrats, including Spreitzer, who voted for the measure despite opposition to certain portions said they did so because of the urgent need for local funding increases. 

“Reluctantly, I’m voting for this bill today because our communities need this funding today, our small businesses need this tax relief today and Milwaukee needs to be saved from going off the fiscal cliff today,” Spreitzer said. “But we’re not done. The offensive policies in this bill cannot stand, the lack of funding for communities like Janesville cannot stand, and this cannot be the last time we talk about or vote on shared revenue for another generation.” 

Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), the lead Senate author of the bill, called it “a compromise bill” that was the result of months of negotiations.  The lawmaker also pushed back on the idea that larger municipalities are entitled to more state aid just because they bring in more sales tax revenue. 

“Wisconsin doesn’t operate independent of our large cities and our rural communities. We have Senators that represent the bread basket of Wisconsin, the Central Sands area,” Felzkowski said. “They feed our economic generators. Madison, Milwaukee, can’t grow their own food, Central Sands grows it for them, as well as a lot of other districts. So does that mean because we don’t generate that sales tax in those rural areas that we’re not entitled to it? One can’t exist without the other.”

The shared revenue bill passed the Assembly in a 68-26 vote with five Republicans and 21 Democrats voting against it. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) noted early on Wednesday that dropping the voter referendum requirement gave some members of his caucus “heartburn.” 

Increased funding for private, charter schools 

The Legislature also passed an education funding bill that was negotiated as a part of the shared revenue negotiations. The Senate passed the bill 24-9 with Johnson and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) joining Republicans in favor. The Assembly then passed the bill 62-31. 

The bill would raise the cap on the amount of revenue school districts are allowed to raise from local taxpayers from $10,000 to $11,000 per student and increase per-pupil aid payments for private voucher and independent charter schools. 

For the 2023-24 school year, the bill would increase the per-pupil payments for private voucher and independent charter schools. According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, under the bill the aid for private school choice K-8 students would increase from $8,300 to $9,499. Per-pupil payments for private school choice 9-12 students would rise from $9,045 to $11,993 and independent charter school students’ payments would increase from $9,264 to $10,991 per student.

Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said the bill tried to address the needs of students attending Wisconsin’s public and choice schools. 

“Sustainable increases for choice and charter, that’s the second big part of this bill,” Stroebel said. “Children, who attend both of these schools, require and deserve a basic level of support,and that’s what this bill does is [provide] a basic level of support for two very diverse types of schools: public schools, private schools.” 

Johnson spoke about deciding to send her own daughter to private school and how parents may want the option to send their kids to a different school. She said she wasn’t going to argue over whether choice schools or public schools are right. 

“They are all children. I am not going to sit up here and even consider rooting for public [schools] or rooting for choice,” Johnson said. “I’m not about to make our children winners or losers because if children are coming from my district, and they are coming from communities where their access to public education is failing, they have already lost.”

Democrats who voted against the bill said it was diverting resources from Wisconsin’s public schools to a system of schools that aren’t held accountable. 

“People in Wisconsin strongly support our public schools, and it’s evident that year after year, due to the majority party’s negligence, communities vote to increase their own taxes to ensure that their local schools have the resources necessary to succeed and adequately prepare their kids, their communities’ children, to be our future,” Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said. “The bill before us, SB 330, diverts funds from our public school system to increase funding to a parallel but separate school system, one that frankly is lacking in accountability.” 

Larson called the bill “one of the worst public education bills we’ve seen.” He objected to tying shared revenue and Milwaukee’s sales tax to the local control provisions and the school voucher increases. 

“The mouthful of poison that city and county leaders have had to swallow to avoid catastrophe is shameful. Attacking local control should never have become the going rate to avert a crisis that legislative Republicans themselves created. But because of the cruelty and appetite for attacking Milwaukee that motivates state Republicans, these were just table stakes,” Larson said in a statement. “Republicans went even further by demanding something not even Scott Walker was able to achieve in his time as Governor — the biggest increase in private school vouchers in 30 years.”

‘Limited to no public oversight’

Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) said that public schools are required to serve all kids, regardless of disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, economic background and learning style, while that’s not the case for private schools. 

“SB 330 will send hundreds of millions of public dollars into private institutions with limited to no public oversight, accountability, and transparency,” Shelton said. “These private schools are places where blatant discrimination against students from the LGBTQ+ community and students with disabilities is legal under current state law. Private schools receiving vouchers are funded with public money where students and parents have no recourse if they are being treated unfairly.

Shelton also mentioned the speed with which the bill was moved forward. It was introduced on June 9 and referred to the Assembly and Senate committee the same day. It was heard by three separate committees on Tuesday. 

Gov. Tony Evers reacted to the bills’ passage on Twitter, saying, “It’s my job as governor to always work to do the right thing when it matters most.”

“We’re securing over $1 billion for our kids and our schools to improve reading and kids’ mental health while making historic investments in our communities,” Evers continued. “This is a win for Wisconsin.

Alongside the bill passed on Wednesday, the negotiations included an increase of $1 billion in state aid to public K-12 schools, raising the per-pupil aid by $325 in each year of the biennium, A $97 million increase in special education funding, $50 million to improve reading and literacy for K-12 students and $30 million to be spent on school-based mental health services. Those measures are included in the state budget that the Joint Finance Committee is currently drafting.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.