The Wisconsin Assembly passed the 2023-25 budget following eight hours of debate Thursday. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Income taxes would be cut by $3.5 billion; the University of Wisconsin System would lose money for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; state employees would get a raise and local governments and public and private schools would receive additional state aid, under the two-year budget bill passed by the Wisconsin Assembly Thursday night. The bill will now go to Gov. Tony Evers desk for signing or potential vetoing.
The bill passed 63-34 with all Republicans voting for the bill and all Democrats voting against it following eight hours of debate. No substantive changes were made to the bill despite calls from Democrats to boost investments in child care, school safety, Wisconsin’s K-12 and university system and other priorities.
Republicans celebrate their “historic” budget bill
Republicans called the budget “historic” on Thursday, saying that the $3.5 billion in income tax cuts and money for housing, local government funding, education and other areas were “targeted” and “strategic.”
Rep. Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc) said the income tax cuts, property tax relief and personal property tax repeal created “the best tax cuts we’ve ever had.” Under the bill, Wisconsin’s progressive income tax brackets would be reduced from three to four brackets.
“The budget surplus isn’t the government’s money. Where did we get it from? The people,” Tittl said. “We need to do our best to return as much as we possibly can to the people of the state of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin’s top earners would receive the largest reduction with the rate for individuals making over $304,170 and joint filers making over $405,550, dropping from 7.65% to 6.5%.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) boasted that the budget removed many of the items Evers included in his initial proposal. Democrats attempted, but failed, to put many of these priorities back in the bill on Thursday, saying that the money from the tax cut could be better used on government services.
“All the crazy priorities that [Evers] put in there are gone — things like repealing Act 10, expanding welfare, new gun control laws, all things that have nothing to do with this budget,” Vos said.
Republicans’ budget bill includes over $700 million to increase pay for state employees. About $344 million of that will be used to increase pay for state corrections officers, placing them at a starting base pay of $33 per hour and implementing additional add-on pay.
Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) said the increases were “transformational” for Department of Corrections employees. Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) said correctional officers are “finally going to get their due in the state budget,” and that it’s important “for us to support the work that they’re doing nobody else wants to do.”
The budget includes $525 million meant to help support affordable housing efforts. Evers signed five bipartisan bills last week that create or expand a number of loan programs through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA).
Vos said the move is a great step forward for the state.
“This is not government building housing for people,” Vos said during a press conference ahead of the floor session. “This is the government enabling the private sector, those in our communities, to help build the homes that will house workers as we move forward in the state of Wisconsin.”
Several of the separate bills focus on redeveloping already existing housing by rehabilitating aging homes, converting commercial property to residential use, and renovating existing housing stock above Main Street retail locations across Wisconsin.
Republicans also highlighted the education portion of the budget, which includes $1 billion in state aid for public K-12 schools (reduced from the $2.6 billion Evers proposed), $50 million for improving reading and literacy and $30 million for school-based mental health services, a significant step down from the $500 million Evers proposed.
Individual districts will receive a bump in funding that is significantly less than inflation, according to the Wisconsin Public Education Network, for the 16th year in a row by the end of the next two-year budget cycle, leading to program and staff cuts and school closures across the state.
“You’re claiming historic investments while not keeping up with inflation. If you do not keep up with inflation, that’s a cut,” Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wawatosa) said. “People in Wisconsin have been told for a decade that the reason the schools can’t be funded is because there isn’t enough money. It’s clear now that wasn’t true with a $7 billion surplus.”
The bill also includes about $97 million for special education, the money will be used to increase public schools’ special education reimbursement from about 30% to 33.3% (Evers had originally proposed a 60% reimbursement). The largest-ever increase in Wisconsin’s per-pupil payments for private voucher and independent charter schools is also in the bill, marking a dramatic expansion in Wisconsin’s publicly funded private school-choice program.
The education budget was negotiated as a part of a bipartisan deal reached between Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders on local government funding. Democrats have criticized the portions of the deal that included significant increases in the state money that will go towards Wisconsin’s charter and private voucher schools.
“Many on the right claim to care about creating opportunities for our kids, and yet the GOP forced a deal to siphon money away from our public system and once again, unconscionably ignores the need to raise reimbursement or special education and give our schools the resources desperately needed to serve every student,” Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said. “While there is some important new investment in K-12 in this budget, we all know it is not enough.”
Democrats have their chance to speak
Democrats argued that the Republicans’ budget plan was incomplete and missed an opportunity to invest in the priorities important to everyday Wisconsinites. They introduced 13 amendments to the bill to restore many parts of the items that were initially part of Evers’ budget.
This included five sweeping amendments focused on areas like education, health and public safety initiatives and other amendments that would have added individual policies to the budget including extending postpartum Medicaid coverage to a year, reversing the cut in funding for the Child Care Counts program, funding the Office of School Safety and a repeal of the state’s 1849 abortion ban.
Republican lawmakers voted to reject all of the amendments. Rep. Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva) criticized Democrats for being performative in introducing the amendments, some of which were hundreds of pages long and turned in shortly before the session started.
“I would never use the phrase disingenuous on the floor of the state Assembly, but I will use the word politics, political theater, charade,” August said.
Democrats said that Republicans were familiar with all of the proposals, most of which were part of Evers’ budget proposal or had previously come up in stand-alone legislation. They also objected to Republicans talking over them during the debate, saying it was their time to speak on the issues that matter to their constituents. “I know this seems like political games to some, but it’s a chance for us to talk about the issues that matter to us and to our voters,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said.
Throughout debate on the amendments, Vos was the only Republican who consistently made comments against the amendments.
The debate on budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System took on new salience following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling that struck down the use of race-based affirmative action in U.S. colleges and universities.
Republicans cut $32 million from the University of Wisconsin System with the purpose of eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campuses throughout the state. Vos, who initially suggested the cut, said the Supreme Court ruling bolstered the decision to remove funding for DEI efforts in the university system.
“Go back and try to explain to your constituents why the very issue that is brought before the [U.S.] Supreme Court today on a 6-3 vote, ruling that affirmative action was unconstitutional, that we should not be using race-based criteria to say that we want to have anybody admitted to the university going through this process,” Vos said. “It is a great day for people who believe in a race neutral society.”
Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde (D-Milwaukee) rejected the idea of colorblindness, saying that “there is no such thing as a color-blind society.” He said he wants people to see him as a Black man and along with that see the “rich tradition” he comes from, the “resilience” he has had to develop and the “burden” he sometimes has to carry.
The rejected amendment proposed by Democrats, who said DEI helps to level the playing field and ensure equal opportunities for everyone, would have restored the money and 188 positions to the UW budget.
“Today is a dark day,” Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) said. “Without affirmative action, colleges, universities and employers will fail to incorporate diversity, equity policies and practices and training, which will harm students of color for generations to come.”
Medicaid expansion was also a policy that Democrats looked to add back to the budget plan. One amendment would have expanded Medicaid coverage for new mothers from 60 days to a year postpartum and another amendment would have accepted money from the federal government for a Medicaid expansion.
Child care was also a hot issue in the debate. Republicans rejected dedicating $340 million to the Child Care Counts program, which provides assistance to child care providers to help them increase pay for their employees and keep tuition costs manageable.
“Now, I am sure we’re going to hear from my legislative colleagues on the left that we’re not doing enough for child care. And that’s easy to say when the answer is to raise taxes. That you can take from some to give to others,” Vos said. “That’s not what we believe. We actually believe that we’re going to make targeted investments.”
The budget instead includes a $15 million revolving loan fund to be administered by the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission (WEDC) with the purpose of helping people open child care centers.
Democrats’ final amendment would have increased state funding for the Office of School Safety, which works to promote safe school environments by providing K-12 schools with resources to improve security measures and train staff on handling traumatic events. The office also runs a 24/7 tipline where students can report safety concerns including bullying, sexual assault and gun violence threats.
“This hotline is what gets the tip when someone at your son or daughter’s school is on Snapchat and sees someone say, ‘Don’t go to school tomorrow’ or see someone say, ‘I might bring a gun to school.’ … This hotline has received 7,000 tips,” Andraca said. She added that a vote rejecting the amendment would shut the hotline, which currently employs nine people. The office is allowed 3.8 positions under the bill passed.
Vos said there were positions and money within the Department of Justice that could be repurposed for the Office of Public Safety. He added that if people want to report a school safety concern, they can call 911.
Evers has final opportunity to shape budget
The budget bill will now go to Evers, who will have the opportunity to veto the entire bill, sign the bill as is or make changes using his broad partial veto powers before signing. Once he receives it, Evers will have six days, excluding Sunday, to take action.
Evers told WQOW News 18 on Thursday that if he does sign the budget, “there will be as many partial vetoes as we can muster.”
“We’re still in the process of looking at it,” Evers added. “Every time they take a whack at it they make some changes, so I want to make sure that the pieces are in place for me to sign it or not.”
Wisconsin Republicans have worked throughout the budget process to limit Evers’ partial veto power by introducing certain budget-related legislation in separate bills and by writing the budget in way that limits his veto authority on individual items.
Evers can remove or reduce appropriations using his veto power. However, the power has been limited in recent years by rulings of the state Supreme Court that have said the governor is not allowed to strike singular letters to create new words or cut sentences to create new ones.
Republican lawmakers adopted an amendment on the floor that made several technical changes to the bill, meant to make the legislative intent of the bill clear. Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) pointed out that part of the amendment changed the formatting of Republicans’ proposed tax brackets — writing out with letters how much each tax rate should be reduced, rather than just using numbers, so that Evers can’t veto them. The amendment makes that change for all the tax brackets except the top tax bracket.
Goyke said he thought the top bracket wasn’t protected in the same way from a partial veto because of a potential veto of the full budget bill.
“I think they understood that the governor, if left no choice, would veto the entire budget,” Goyke said.
Neubauer wouldn’t say whether she would support a complete veto by Evers.
“The governor was elected by the people of Wisconsin to make difficult decisions in divided government,” Neubauer said ahead of the session. “We trust that he will use his power to do the right thing by the people of Wisconsin when it gets to his desk.”
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