The party-line vote by Republicans on the state’s budget-writing committee leaves obvious holes, some Wisconsinites say.
The vote Thursday by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee to slash $3.4 billion from Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2021-23 state budget would leave the state without much-needed services if at least some of those initiatives aren’t added back, supporters of those measures said.
The committee eliminated nearly 400 measures proposed by the Democratic governor, cutting a broad range of proposed programs that would address a wide range of needs supporters said must be addressed sooner than later.
The committee’s largest budget reduction was the elimination of a proposed expansion of the state’s BadgerCare Plus insurance program. It would provide health insurance coverage to an additional 90,000 people in the state, and accepting the federal Medicaid money to pay for the program would have netted the state $1.6 billion during the next two years.
Not only will that money be lost if that item remains deleted from the state budget scheduled to be adopted this summer, but not expanding BadgerCare Plus will leave many in need without medical coverage.
“I’ve been just so frustrated with this state’s stance,” Marnie Hersrud, an Eau Claire resident, said of the Legislature’s repeated refusal to accept federal Medicaid money to pay for a BadgerCare expansion. “You would think after all these years, and after other states, and Republican states, that have signed on, that we would too. Look what we’ve missed.”
Wisconsin is one of 12 states that have not accepted federal Medicaid expansion dollars. State Republican leaders have said they won’t do so because they fear the federal government won’t fully fund a BadgerCare expansion, but that money has been paid to other states.
Once the Joint Finance Committee finishes its version of a state budget bill, it will go to the Assembly and Senate for debate and possible amendments, including some Democrats who are sure to propose to restore some of the deleted items. Once lawmakers in the two chambers reach agreement on a final draft, the bill will go to the governor for a signature, a veto, or line-item vetoes.
Among the many proposals also cut from the budget Thursday were legalizing marijuana, which would bring in $165 million per year in marijuana taxes; raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.60 this year and $10.15 in 2024; repealing Act 10, the controversial 2011 law that greatly restricts collective bargaining for most public workers; and $5 million in grants, loans and other funding for underserved communities such as people of color, women-owned businesses, and companies in rural areas.
Instead of proceeding with the governor’s proposed budget and seeking common ground, the Joint Finance Committee’s vote to eliminate Evers’ proposals means they will form the next budget from the current one, which was largely written by Republican lawmakers in 2019 and altered by Evers through a series of vetoes. The committee will meet next week to continue its current task of reviewing each individual agency’s requests .
Republicans on the committee said Evers’ plan to increase spending by about $1 billion during the next two years isn’t affordable and pledged that the new budget won’t include a tax increase. Democratic lawmakers argue those expenditures are needed to provide necessary services and said they would boost the state’s economy.
At four Joint Finance Committee public hearings in recent weeks, state residents spoke in favor of numerous proposals that would increase taxes, saying such funding is necessary to provide much-needed services. Others advocated for similar programs at forums put on by legislators back in their districts.
One of the topics prompting the strongest support is funding for schools, which have experienced increased costs because of the coronavirus pandemic. Continued underfunding of special education costs combined with state-imposed revenue limits have stretched many school districts to the breaking point, education advocates said.
The state pays about 28% of districts’ special education costs; Evers had proposed increasing that figure to 50%, but that measure was among those removed from the budget on Thursday.
“When the state fails to pay more for special education funding, it means those costs have to come from school districts’ general budgets, and that leaves less for the rest of student programs,” said Ronald “Duff” Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union.
Local government leaders said they need more money from the state as well. Costs for state-mandated services far outpace available state funding for those programs, they said, leaving reduced service levels and money shifting that shortchanges other budget areas.
“Time and time again, we get not funded mandates, or under funded mandates (from the state),” said Gerald Wilkie, a longtime Eau Claire County Board supervisor. “We can’t keep up with the cost. If you’re going to mandate it, then pay for it.”
Also removed from the budget was $2.1 million for statewide PFAS monitoring and testing. Failing to test for these industrial-use chemical compounds—known to cause health problems in humans—will only increase the number of people impacted by PFAS, said Doug Oitzinger, an advocate for PFAS testing who is a City Council member in Marinette, the part of the state most impacted by the so-called “forever chemicals” that do not break down in nature and continue to accumulate in places where they could seep into water supplies.
“Every community in Wisconsin should be testing for PFAS,” he said, noting that is unlikely to happen without state funding.
The current Legislature has already expressed hostility toward PFAS testing, standards, and removal; and the big-business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has sued to try to stop the Department of Natural Resources from those activities.