Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) speaks Tuesday ahead of the Assembly's vote on the 2021-23 state budget. He described the Republican-authored budget as "forward-looking" because it centers on a massive tax cut rather than spending more money on services like schools. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) speaks Tuesday ahead of the Assembly's vote on the 2021-23 state budget. He described the Republican-authored budget as "forward-looking" because it centers on a massive tax cut rather than spending more money on services like schools. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Republicans heralded their budget as a game-changer due to its focus on cutting taxes, but Democrats were quick to point out missed opportunities to use the state’s historic surplus.

Republicans characterized the 2021-23 budget the Assembly approved Tuesday as a responsible mix of new spending initiatives and tax cuts for Wisconsin property owners, but their Democratic counterparts said it fails to address numerous needs across the state at a time of unprecedented federal funding from pandemic relief and a projected $4.4 billion tax revenue surplus.

The $87 billion budget the Republican-led Assembly backed is a significant reworking of the $91 billion plan Gov. Tony Evers proposed earlier this year. Evers’ proposed budget included provisions to expand BadgerCare to 90,000 low-income state residents, legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage, reform the criminal justice system, and increase spending for schools, affordable housing, mental health services, and many other programs.

However, Republican lawmakers cut 380 budget items Evers proposed and will instead keep school funding virtually flat while returning much of the surplus in the form of tax breaks that disproportionately benefit people earning $100,000 or more.

Despite many Democrats’ misgivings about the budget, it passed the Assembly with some bipartisan support. All Republicans and Democrats Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay, Steve Doyle of Onalaska, Don Vruwink of Milton, and Beth Meyers of Bayfield voted in favor.

However, Democrats who voted against the budget argued it amounted to a series of missed opportunities on the part of Republicans.

“Back to basics was the best you guys could come up with for the messaging on this budget,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “Back to basics. It’s like an admission of guilt that you don’t have any new ideas.”

A decade of Republican tax breaks has left Wisconsin with very little population growth outside of Dane County, Goyke said. He and other Democrats said Republicans were only seeking to make the governor look bad by refusing to do anything substantial other than cut taxes.

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Helping more Wisconsinites is “only possible when you break free of the idea that you define your victories by losses for Gov. Tony Evers,” Goyke said. “The real losers in this whole process will be the people of Wisconsin.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) called the idea that the budget is centered on stalling Evers’ proposals “a bunch of hooey” and said Evers’ proposed budget was “a tired, liberal wish list of one government program after another.”

The Republican budget—which includes $3.4 billion in tax breaks—balances the need for new spending and curbing property taxes, Vos said. He argued the state still has too high of a tax burden. Republican lawmakers also touted their budget’s elimination of a tax on businesses’ equipment and furnishings, which is estimated to cost the state $200 million over two years.

Vos said Wisconsin should continue to cut taxes to attract more people, following the lead of fast-growth states like Texas and Florida.

“That’s what this budget is,” Vos said. “It’s optimistic, it’s positive, it’s forward-looking, and it addresses what we need to do in Wisconsin.”

Republican representatives, as they have consistently argued since the American Rescue Plan was passed, said Tuesday that the state didn’t need to spend more because of the billions of dollars in federal aid going toward state and local entities and schools. However, Democrats said those dollars are needed to meet needs created by the pandemic and should not be viewed as a substitute for state funding. 

“It’s very strange to sit in this capitol and have my colleagues on the other side of the aisle say that things are just fine, that this budget is enough,” said Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine). “Because when I got out in my district, or when we traveled around the state on our road show, we heard from a lot of people who are not fine.”

Acknowledging the budget excluded many top items requested by Democrats and people around the state, Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) invoked the Rolling Stones.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Schraa said.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) criticized Republicans for contending they’re increasing education spending as part of the budget when in fact nearly all of that money is being used for property tax relief.

“We have the money to do better than this, to make investments more consistent with what we’ve historically done in Wisconsin,” he said, noting there was enough funding available to boost spending for programs and provide tax relief.

The $128 million school funding increase the JFC approved is far less than Evers’ initial $1.6 billion proposal and nearly $400 million less than required to secure an additional $2.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief. Republicans found a workaround to still receive the federal funding by cutting taxes for schools and technical colleges by $647 million and using increased state aid to make up for that lost revenue, thereby qualifying for the relief funds without actually passing on more dollars to schools.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the state budget. It then heads to Evers, who can either sign it, veto it, or make partial vetoes. The governor has not indicated what action he will take on the budget. 

Doyle, the Onalaska Democrat who voted in favor of the budget, said he’s confident Evers will use his partial veto powers to make the budget “acceptable”; he described the Republican budget as lackluster.

“I’m not sure that I think it’s harmful,” Doyle said. “I just don’t think it’s helpful.”