Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) speaks ahead of the Wisconsin Senate's vote to pass the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
Sen. Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska) speaks ahead of the Wisconsin Senate's vote to pass the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Despite a massive, unexpected surplus, Republican lawmakers opted to spend the vast majority of the money on tax cuts. The ball is now in Evers’ court.

The state Senate on Wednesday passed the $87.5 billion biennial budget, sending it to Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. 

The budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature is a significant reworking of the $91 billion plan 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.

But Republicans jettisoned 380 of the governor’s proposals and put the lion’s share of the state’s historic $4.4 billion surplus toward tax cuts.

Evers has not yet said whether he plans to pass, veto, or partially veto the budget.

“The full Legislature has now passed the most conservative budget in a generation turning Governor Evers’ bloated, political document into a responsible, bipartisan success story for our state,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said in a press release. 

A total of seven Democratic legislators in the Assembly and Senate joined their Republican colleagues to approve the budget. But even those who eventually voted for the budget argued that it disproportionately benefits wealthy Wisconsinites and does not adequately invest in the state’s recovery from the pandemic in light of the surplus. 

RELATED: Evers Wants to Use $4.4 Billion Surplus on Schools. GOP Wants Tax Cuts.

“Minimum, minimum, minimum investments, the least possible amount of money, when in fact we’re dealing with our future,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason).

She added, “Eventually, you aren’t investing in the future anymore and you don’t even know it. You’ve gone past that point of no return to where we have to recover. We have to come up with a way to repair the past, and then we still don’t have enough money to go into the future.”

Despite her scathng criticism of the budget, Bewley was one of three Senate Democrats who voted to pass it. 

LeMahieu claimed the $3.4 billion tax cut would translate to “real money for the average family … that can help them pay for their kids’ college, that can lower their debt,” but most Wisconsinites would save around $100 in income tax and around $100 in property tax if they’re a homeowner. Three-quarters of the $3.4 billion would go to Wisconsinites who earn $100,000 or more. 

Senate Democrats introduced amendments based on Evers’ budget, attempting to distribute the tax benefits more equitably. For example, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) proposed ending the personal property tax only for companies that earn less than $10 million, rather than eliminating the tax entirely. 

“The rich are doing just fine,” Larson said. “We don’t need to be doing so much for them, showering them with money. They don’t need it. Let’s do something for the little guy.”

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) speaks ahead of the Wisconsin Senate’s vote to pass the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Democrats’ amendments were voted down by Senate Republicans.

None of the Milwaukee legislators voted for the budget, citing the number of items that Joint Finance Republicans cut that would have benefited the city, including lead pipe abatement, public health initiatives, and capital projects.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) noted the items removed that would have reduced the state’s racial disparities when it comes to healthcare, particularly birth outcomes, which are some of the starkest in the country. 

“You would think that we would want to change that,” Johnson said. “You would think that that would be a part of our vision for Wisconsin, but clearly it’s not.”

Johnson argued that investing in doula care, removing lead laterals, and the Birth to 3 program, which works with infants and toddlers with developmental delays. She also argued that expanding BadgerCare would result in better outcomes, which would save the state funds down the road. 

A 2014 Department of Health Services report estimated that eliminating lead poisoning among preschool-age children would save the state $28 billion based on “avoided costs for medical treatment, special education, and crime and juveniles delinquency, and increased high school graduation rates, the effects on lifetime ability to earn, and costs to state government.”

“When we fail to act and service these children, the state pays,” Johnson said. “If anything, we’re costing taxpayers money.”

Senate Democrats also blasted Republicans for underfunding education. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) claimed the state was increasing education funding, but Larson pointed out that a less-than 1% increase, due to inflation, was essentially a decrease. 

“At the end of the day, talk to the folks in your district. Talk to the teachers. See if they jump up and down because you say, ‘I didn’t cut you,’” Larson said. “If you’re not going to invest in kids now, if you’re not going to invest in schools now, when are you?”

Overall, Larson said the budget was another sign of Republicans’ refusal to recognize the real impact of the pandemic and the real need for assistance across the state.

“I get that you want to pretend that we didn’t have a pandemic because your last president screwed it up so royally… I get that you want to paper over that and pretend that the Republican party wasn’t in charge and that it never happened at all,” Larson said. “We’d rather have tax cuts for the rich and whistle past the graveyard.”