Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signs the Reublican-written state budget that includes a $2 billion income tax cut on Thursday, July 8, 2021, at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)
Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signs the Reublican-written state budget that includes a $2 billion income tax cut on Thursday, July 8, 2021, at Cumberland Elementary School in Whitefish Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Governor reluctantly signs a budget that uses the state’s surplus on tax cuts rather than education and infrastructure.

Calling a veto “out of the question” because it would have jeopardized $2.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding for K-12 schools, Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday signed the $87.5 billion 2021-23 state budget.

“I signed the budget, simple as that,” Evers said after signing the budget at a Whitefish Bay elementary school. 

The governor’s signature brought to a close a contentious budget process in which Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee stripped the budget of 380 items Evers proposed and repeatedly refused to entertain Democratic proposals, choosing to focus on the budget’s massive tax break—made possible by the state’s historic $4.4 billion surplus—that disproportionately benefits people making $100,000 or more.

Evers on Thursday sought to recast the tax cut as bipartisan on the grounds that he signed it and seven legislative Democrats voted for it. Evers further claimed he delivered on a campaign promise to lower taxes on the middle class by signing the cut. At the budget-signing press conference, Revenue Secretary Peter Barca said the average Wisconsin household—defined as an income of $61,000—will see a tax break of about $480 per year.

“It is laughable that the Governor is now taking credit for cutting taxes. Just six months ago, the Governor wanted $1 billion in tax INCREASES,” Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) wrote in a joint statement, referring to Evers’ initial proposal to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Shoring Up Schools

Evers said the state should put the surplus toward schools, broadband, and business development, but the amended GOP budget only increased school funding by $128 million, less than 10% of what Evers first proposed

Evers said the budget had been written in such a way that he could not exercise his partial veto power to increase funding for schools as he did in the last budget. Instead, he announced he would use $100 million in federal money to increase school funding outside of the budget.

“This budget isn’t good enough for our kids, and Republicans could and should have done more,” Evers said. He said Republicans should have used the surplus to both cut taxes and increase school funding, saying the two options “are not mutually exclusive.”

Education leaders in Wisconsin criticized what they said was Republicans’ shortchanging schools in the budget. The Republican-backed budget increased funding for schools on paper, but most of that money will go to tax cuts instead as schools were not allowed to increase state-imposed spending caps and therefore could access few of those dollars.

“We had a chance to close the gaps and the Legislature chose to make them wider,” said Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Let’s hope they will use all of the money that has been freed up by the governor’s vetoes to close the special education gap and to provide some actual per-pupil funding for students.”

RELATED: Faced With Billions of New Dollars, GOP Lawmakers Make ‘Minimum Investments’ As Budget Goes to Evers’ Desk

Ron “Duff” Martin, president of the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, praised Evers adding $100 million for schools but expressed frustration at the “severe partisan nature of the budget process that underlines why fair legislative maps are desperately needed in Wisconsin.” 

The Association for Equity in Funding (AEF), a Wisconsin organization advocating for equitable school funding, released a press statement saying the organization was looking at all options, including filing a lawsuit, in order to increase funding to districts in need. 

“AEF member districts have approved the filing of the suit, and have begun to amass a legal action fund,” the organization stated. “AEF is conferring with top-tier law firms in the state and nation. We have completed preliminary data analyses, and have begun reaching out to expert witnesses. We have engaged legal, policy, and economic experts. We are identifying potential plaintiffs.”

Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) in a statement criticized the governor for vetoing $750,000 for Lakeland STAR Academy, a public charter school in his district. 

“Yet again, he is turning his back on children with autism and special needs and the Northwoods as a whole,” Swearingen wrote. “Coming from the former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, you would think that he values special education, but his actions unfortunately speak louder than his words.”

In his veto statement, Evers said he objected to “providing state grants to specific schools when the Legislature has provided limited new spending to Wisconsin’s public school system as a whole. 

“Every kid in Wisconsin should be able to get a great education in a public school regardless of what district they live in, and state funding decisions should not pick winners and losers among our kids.” 

What Stayed and What Was Cut

While Evers did exercise his partial veto power on 50 items, many Republican provisions remained, including one that cut public transportation funding in Milwaukee and Madison in half. Republicans did not cut funding for other transit authorities.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called it “a blatantly partisan move.” 

“The drastic cuts undermine the state’s economic recovery. Dane and Milwaukee Counties are economic engines for the state making up about a third of Wisconsin’s economy, with Dane County contributing over $46 billion in 2019,” Rhodes-Conway wrote in a statement. “Metro Transit serves workers and employers in Madison, but surrounding communities. I am confident that our regional economy will recover, but we need to keep providing the absolutely critical services that will allow it to do so.”

Evers did not criticize any specific provisions included in the budget, but he said the budget was lacking in many areas beyond school funding, such as criminal justice reform, that Republicans simply did not address.

“The biggest problems with the budget are not the things that need to be removed by a stroke of a pen, but rather the work the Legislature has left undone,” Evers said. “From working toward reforming our justice system, to protecting the right of every person to vote, to investing in equity, among other areas.”

One of the items he vetoed was the transfer of $550 million to the state’s rainy day fund, saying it could “be immediately applied to investments in our kids, small businesses, and our state’s continued economic recovery.” 

“[T]his funding should remain in the general fund where it can be directly appropriated to address gaps and shortfalls in the Legislature’s budget actions,” Evers wrote. “I request the Legislature work with me to instead invest these funds to address the immediate needs of Wisconsinites.” 

Some of the other items Evers vetoed included: 

  • A requirement that the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) begin drug testing of unemployment insurance beneficiaries, “despite no evidence of a widespread issue of drug usage for individuals applying for or receiving unemployment insurance benefits,” Evers wrote, adding, “The Department of Workforce Development’s efforts should be focused on assisting those who are unemployed or underemployed to obtain family-sustaining jobs rather than burdensome rule-making.
  • A provision that would have required a DWD to study converting the state’s unemployment system to a sliding scale system based on the unemployment rate.  “I object to the financing of a study about converting to a system that could put unemployment insurance benefits in jeopardy for those vulnerable individuals that rely on these benefits during difficult economic times,” Evers wrote.
  • A healthy eating pilot program that provides a discount to FoodShare recipients if they purchase healthier foods. In his veto, Evers pointed out that the program also benefits farmers because it would provide EBT readers to farmers’ markets, which is another reason why he chose to continue the program.
  • A provision that would have had the Department of Health pay employers $20 per blood donation for employer-based blood drives was also cut because Evers “object[s] to compensating employers for their employees’ blood.”