A light dusting of snow is seen on and around the state Capitol in Madison as the Wisconsin Legislature begins its new session on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Jessica VanEgeren)
Photo courtesy of Jessica VanEgeren

GOP lawmakers want to use the state’s $6.6 billion surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy, but Gov. Tony Evers and Biden’s targeted investments saved the economy during the pandemic and are opening new opportunities in the future.

As the newest Democratic addition to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Kelda Roys sees no reason to be shy about her party’s expectations for handling the largest state budget surplus in history. After all, she said, it’s Democrats whose actions steered the economy through a pandemic that threatened to bring long-term financial ruin

“We thought we could have been dealing with mass unemployment, with a huge depression, with the closure of small businesses everywhere,” Roys said on UpNorthNews Radio. “And while we did see economic strife, we have come out of that pandemic much, much stronger. That’s thanks to the work of Democratic elected officials making needed targeted investments in the places where it mattered the most.” 

Roys pointed to record low unemployment in the state as well as the growth of new or expanding small businesses. Gov. Tony Evers’ Main Street Bounceback program is one example of targeted investment of pandemic aid—with more than 6,600 small businesses and nonprofit organizations receiving a financial boost.

After more than decade of Republican budget austerity, Roys said the surplus allows the Legislature to fulfill its commitment to taxpayers.

“It gives us a real opportunity to right some of the historical wrongs over the last several years and even decades where we’ve underinvested in critical public services,” Roys said. “I think it’s really important that we have advocates on the state’s budget writing committee that understand what the people of Wisconsin need and deserve in terms of services and that we can deliver it. We no longer have the excuse of ‘we can’t afford it.’ We absolutely can afford and we need to make these kinds of investments if we want Wisconsin to thrive in the next generation.” 

Republicans, who obstructed pandemic relief efforts and spent much of the past three years out of session, have said they want the surplus used on tax cuts or a flatter tax code—both of which would likely favor the very wealthy. GOP lawmakers repeatedly imply the surplus is some form of ill-gotten gain, a result of higher taxes. The facts show tax rates remain the same and state revenue has climbed as the management of pandemic relief kept business and households afloat. The Wisconsin Policy Forum also notes sales tax revenue increased along with consumer prices, while state spending was reduced thanks to the federal government temporarily taking on a larger portion of Medicaid costs.

“It’s so ridiculous,” Roys said of the Republican claims. “The reason we have this historic surplus is because in the midst of a once in a century global crisis, President Biden, Democrats in Congress, and Governor Evers stepped in to stop an economic crisis from happening. So the idea that somehow the state of Wisconsin shouldn’t have this much money, I think, just shows the intellectual vacuity of their arguments,” Roys said.

Roys, whose Madison district includes the state Capitol, will be one of only four Democrats on the 16-member finance committee.  She was named to the committee last week by new Senate Democratic Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) to replace retiring Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point).

The 12 Republicans on the committee will essentially write their party’s version of a state budget proposal to counter the one Evers will deliver on Feb. 15.