Republican Sen. Devin LeMahieu argues for overriding Gov. Tony Evers’ budget partial vetoes on the state Senate floor Thursday. (Screenshot | WisEye)
After an hour-long exchange of speeches, Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted three times Thursday to override vetoes from Gov. Tony Evers, two of them partial vetoes that Evers made to the 2023-25 state budget.
The override votes now go to the state Assembly, where the GOP is just two seats shy of the two-thirds majority needed to concur with the Senate and override Evers’ veto for the first time since he took office in January 2019.
Along party lines, the Senate voted 22-11 to override:
- Evers’ veto in the budget that authorized public school districts to raise their revenue limits by $325 annually for the next 400 years.
- Evers’ veto of budget language that cut the income tax rate for households with incomes from $25,000 to $370,000.
- Evers’ veto of SB-49, a bill to protect liquified gas retailers from government restrictions on their products and also to block state agencies and local governments from restricting utilities or discriminating against them based on their “type or source of energy.”
The outcomes of all three votes came as no surprise. Before the first vote, on the natural gas measure, Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) condemned not only the coming veto overrides but also a subsequent vote to fire Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe over the objections of Democrats.
“Rather than wasting people’s time and legislative resources with a sham confirmation process that is not properly or legally before the Senate and overriding the governor’s vetoes today, we should in fact, instead be focusing on issues that align with the values of the people who live in the state of Wisconsin, issues that have broad, bipartisan support,” Agard said, citing proposals including paid family leave, funding for child care, legalizing cannabis and restoring abortion rights.
When Evers vetoed SB-49 in August, he criticized the bill for hampering local and state initiatives to combat climate change and curb fossil fuel use.
Urging the Senate to override the veto Thursday, Sen. Julian Bradley (R-Franklin) evoked Agard’s call to act on matters “that have bipartisan support and things that the people of the state of Wisconsin want.” Wisconsinites “want to be able to use natural gas,” he said. “They want to be able to have reliable electricity and power.” Bradley added that similar legislation has passed other states with bipartisan support.
Rejecting future revenue limit increases
While voting against that veto override, Democrats skipped discussing the subject, focusing instead on the two budget vetoes.
The first of those votes was to undo Evers’ application of the partial veto that turned a $325 per-pupil increase in public school revenue limits for each of the next two years into an annual increase of that amount until the year 2425.
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) chided the Republicans for seeking to override that veto.
“I would have thought that setting a bare minimum increase for per-pupil [revenue limit] increases” and “giving flexibility to local school boards to be able to increase at a steady pace, year after year would have been something that would have been not just been bipartisan, but would have been unanimous,” Larson said.
Because of the Legislature’s history of refusing to raise revenue limits for public schools, “the dollars that are going into our schools now are less than they were, accounting for inflation, than they were 14 years ago [in the year] 2009,” he added.
Declaring that the veto effectively added $750 million a year to school budgets, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) framed it as “increasing taxes, property taxes on Wisconsinites, for the next 400 years — 400 years. [A] $750 million increase every year, every budget for the next 400 years.”
Restoring a tax cut
After the second 22-11 override vote, the senators turned to the other budget veto for the day, deleting the tax cut that Republican lawmakers wrote into the budget on incomes from $25,520 to $280,950 for single filers and $34,030 to $370,600 for joint filers. Evers vetoed a change lowering the income tax rate for that bracket to 4.4% from 5.3%.
In the speeches that followed for and against the override, Republicans focused on the lower end of the income bracket and continually referred to the measure as a “middle class tax cut.”
“We have a chance today to send a message to Wisconsinites that, you know, if you make $27,630, you aren’t too wealthy to receive a tax cut,” LeMahieu said.
Democrats, meanwhile, focused on the range from bottom to top in the affected tax bracket.
“I don’t envision people making close to $400,000 being considered to be in the middle class,” said Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee). “I would be interested in a tax cut for the middle class. But this isn’t the middle class.”
In the state’s lowest tax bracket, the people at the top make about $14,000 more than the people at the bottom, said Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). In the second bracket, the income range is about the same. But for the third backet, she added, the income of a person at the top is about $276,500 more than a person at the bottom.
Someone at the lower end “is barely making 10% of the person you have at the top” of that bracket, Taylor. “They are not the same. Their experiences are not the same. Their quality of life is not the same.”
Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) contrasted what families at the lower end of the bracket would get from the tax cut with things that he said weren’t adequately funded in the new budget.
“The impact is when we’re stealing money from our schools. When we’re taking money out of child care,” said Smith. “I don’t think saving $13 on your taxes or even $300 or even $500 is going to change the life of a family when they can’t afford to hold two jobs because they can’t afford child care.”
Republicans argued that lower taxes were essential to drawing more people to Wisconsin. “If we want to grow, we need to empower our taxpayers here in the state,” said Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point). “And we do that by incentivizing growth, but having a competitive tax climate, which is why we sent the governor these tax cuts.”
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said young people aren’t leaving Wisconsin because they think taxes are too high. “They’re leaving because of lack of opportunity,” Johnson said. “We continue to think that providing tax cuts to some of the wealthier people in this state will somehow trickle down to those individuals that will be most impacted by these tax cuts. And it never works.”
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In a procedural move before the Senate discussion began on the veto for the third tax bracket, LeMahieu separated the discussion of Evers’ other tax cut veto, which canceled a cut to 6.5% from 7.65% in the tax rate for the top income bracket, for single filers making more than $280,950 and joint filers making more than $374,600.
According to state Department of Revenue calculations, the top beneficiaries of that tax cut would have been 11 taxpayers with incomes of $75 million or more. Each of them stood to gain $1.8 million on average.
After the 22-11 vote overriding the veto of the third bracket tax cut, however, LeMahieu moved to table the top bracket veto override.
After the argument, mostly agreement
Notwithstanding the lengthy and at times caustic rhetoric surrounding the veto overrides and the motion to fire Wolfe, the Senate went on to pass more than a dozen other bills, all without debate and all but a couple on unanimous or nearly unanimous votes.
The measures they approved include SB-110, extending coverage for Medicaid recipients who give birth for the full year after a child is born. The Senate approved the measure 32-1, sending it to the Assembly, where its future is uncertain.
The Senate also approved three bills written to tighten the Wisconsin National Guard’s handling of sexual assault cases involving Guard members. All were approved on voice votes with no dissent. Those bills also go to the Assembly, where they also have bipartisan support.
One exception to the unanimity that characterized the balance of the session came toward the end, on a bill that would put limits on prosecutors’ ability to make plea deals with some defendants.
AB-57 requires prosecutors to request court permission before dismissing or amending charges in cases involving domestic abuse, car theft, sexual assault, crimes against children, illegal firearm possession and reckless driving.
Sen. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield), the only lawmaker to speak for or against the measure, called it an effort to “to eliminate the revolving door of criminal justice within the population, many of which are juveniles” and to provide “more oversight and more accountability within our prosecutorial ranks.”
The bill passed the Assembly with only Republican votes in March, and on Thursday, the Senate concurred on a 22-11 party-line vote.
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