Advocates hold their breath for Evers’ budget announcement

By: - July 7, 2021 6:59 pm
local officials high fiving kids on the first day of school

Back to School welcome 2019 with Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Mandela Barnes and Tony Evers (courtesy of Office of Gov. Evers)

With the deadline upon the governor to either sign, partially veto, or veto the entire state budget presented to him by the Republican-led Legislature, advocates hope Evers will find some way to preserve his vision for increasing support for schools, which the Legislature decimated in the version it sent to his desk last week.

“I’m hopeful we’ll have some good news for kids,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “But I’m also prepared to be disappointed because he doesn’t have much to work with.”

There is very little likelihood that Evers will veto the entire budget, despite criticizing its failure to adequately fund schools. A handful of Democrats in the Legislature voted for the budget, and a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo requested by Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach found that the state will lose billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds if Evers vetoes the budget in its entirety. Under the CARES Act and subsequent COVID relief legislation, each state receiving federal funds must maintain state support for K-12 schools and higher education equal to the average level of support in the previous three years. A full budget veto would mean that spending in the fiscal year that just ended would automatically continue for the new fiscal year. That spending is not sufficient to meet federal requirements, the Fiscal Bureau explained.

When the Republican budget that passed the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee ran afoul of the same federal rules, the state received a warning from the U.S. Department of Education that it was in danger of losing federal funds. Republicans then increased money that is labeled as education funding (but in reality will be used for a property tax cut), bringing the budget into compliance and allowing Wisconsin to receive billions of dollars in COVID relief intended for schools.

Republicans have effectively given Evers no choice but to sign a budget that gives Wisconsin school districts less than one-tenth of the state funding he asked for. Instead of increasing state funding for schools over the next two years, Republicans are telling schools to fill the gap with federal funds. School officials object that they are not permitted to use emergency COVID relief for ongoing expenses, and that, given the historic $4 billion windfall in state tax collections projected over the next few years, the state is in a position to significantly increase funding for long-neglected education priorities.

Instead, Republicans chose to give away $2.3 billion in a tax cut that will primarily benefit the top 25% of earners in Wisconsin. They also specifically designed their budget to make it difficult for Evers to use a line-item veto to make changes. But Evers has signalled that he might use his partial veto powers to do away with the tax cut. 

Speaking to reporters after the Republicans gave him their budget on Friday, Evers said his administration would be “spending just about every waking moment” figuring out what to do with it.

“Certainly there’s a large amount of money in the budget for tax cuts, and what we’re gonna be able to do is balance that out,” Evers said. “Certainly, I believe that the money that’s been set aside for schools is inadequate. It’s wrongheaded to believe that federal money that is used for COVID relief is going to be a solution for our schools.”

That statement raised hopes among school advocates that Evers “may have found a creative way to preserve the money that was wasted on tax cuts,” says DuBois Bourenane. 

In a July 1 letter to Evers, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools wrote, “We implore you to do everything in your veto power to improve this budget for schools.”

The Legislature’s budget squandered a “golden opportunity” provided by the state’s influx of revenue this year, Alliance members wrote, and legislators ignored public testimony at budget hearings around the state where citizens overwhelmingly supported increased funding for schools.

“Instead of doing the right thing for children, the legislature has chosen to play hardball partisan politics to Wisconsin’s detriment,” the public school advocates wrote. “The legislature’s budget shows bad economic reasoning and reveals that they do not value public education for Wisconsin’s children. We know you value education and value Wisconsin’s children. At a minimum, please veto the tax cuts put forth in this budget to reserve funding for our children’s future.”

Other advocates have called for a full Evers veto.

The handful of Democrats who voted for the Republican budget, “left all the Democrats in a muddle,” writes Matthew Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “They couldn’t coherently denounce the budget as savage toward public education, even though it reduced Evers’s funding for public ed by 90 percent.”

While Rothschild favors a full veto, he is “under no illusions” that Evers will cancel the whole Republican budget.

Still, he writes, “He should call the Republicans’ bluff. They think that their tax cut automatically makes them popular with the voting public. But if Evers proposes a tax cut that would give most Wisconsinites much more than the Republicans are offering, then Republicans would be the ones over the barrel.”

Other groups calling for a partial veto by Evers include the Wisconsin Aging Advocacy Network, which urged Evers to use his line-item veto to remove the Republicans’ 50% funding cut for mass transit in Milwaukee and Madison and increase funding for dementia, Alzheimers and Medicaid provider reimbursements.

Kids Forward sent a letter to Governor Evers Tuesday urging him to veto part of the budget bill and work with state legislators to develop a bipartisan alternative to Republican’s income tax cut.

Michele Mackey, Kids Forward’s CEO, suggested in the letter that rather than passing a “hastily crafted and poorly targeted tax cut,” Evers should meet this summer with key legislators “to negotiate a compromise that contains smaller and better targeted tax cuts and increased spending in areas critical for Wisconsin’s future.”

The Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations wrote to Evers: “As the Governor’s office considers its veto options, disability advocates request the Governor use veto authority to restore the cuts to mass transit operating assistance and consider ways to veto or partially veto the income tax cuts that reduce revenues by $2.37 billion and will negatively impact revenues for future budget cycles.”

Along with mass transit, disability advocates wrote that they were disappointed that the final budget passed by the Legislature removed other items important to people with disabilities and their families — “including lead abatement, significant investments in special education, funding for guardian training, most of the recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force on Caregiving, sum-sufficient funding for the children’s long-term support program, increased support for specific mental health crisis response,” among other items.

“This budget so dramatically underserves our kids it’s shameful,” says DuBois Bourenane. “There is such a clear intent to deprive schools of funding.” 

There will be other opportunities to fund schools after the budget process is over, she says, “There’s a way, but is there a will?” 

“Evers could call a special session on education any time,” says DuBois Bourenane, “but after watching the floor speeches by Republicans disparaging schools and educators, I don’t have any confidence they wouldn’t just gavel in and gavel out.”

“I’m grateful that doing better for our public schools is a priority area for his office,” she adds, “since it’s a priority disgrace in the budget.”


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.