By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers rolled out a massive, $91 billion biennial budget plan Tuesday evening that significantly increases spending, dramatically expands the size of state government and hits taxpayers where it hurts.
Republican lawmakers see it as the same old, same old “liberal wish list” from a tax-and-spend Democrat.
“Governor Evers released a budget very similar to his last budget—a budget stuffed with tax increases, higher spending, and non-fiscal policy,” Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said following the governor’s budget address.
Kapenga noted that had it not been for the Republican-led Legislature’s scissors trimming the special interest giveaways in Evers’ first budget proposal two years ago the state would be facing an onerous budget shortfall instead of a $2.1 billion surplus and healthy rainy day fund.
It’s even worse than it first appears.
Evers’ proposal calls for $1 billion in tax hikes, nearly $8 billion in new spending, and 363 new government positions. There’s a host of non-fiscal policy items, including the return of “red flag” measures and expanded firearms background checks. And the governor goes after Act 10 and looks to legalize marijuana.
Republicans seemed to signal their intentions to do what they did in 2019: Rebuild the budget from the ground (or base) up.
“We’ll set Evers’ bad budget aside and continue to build on our strong foundation that put our state on strong fiscal footing over the decade,” said Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg).
For state budget watchers, it was deja vu. Evers, after claiming he would not raise taxes days before winning the 2018 election, proposed a budget that would have increased taxes by about $1 billion. He does so again with this budget, going back to his old chestnut: socking it to Wisconsin manufacturers by capping the successful manufacturing and ag tax credit.
Up in smoke
The governor unveiled many of his budget initiatives in the days leading up to his address. He didn’t mention his plan to legalize recreational marijuana in his speech, but his budget counts on what he insists will be $165 million in a new revenue stream. Evers claims the weed tax would go to help rural schools and underserved communities.
“Legalizing and taxing marijuana in Wisconsin—just like we do already with alcohol—ensures a controlled market and safe product are available for both recreational and medicinal users and can open the door for countless opportunities for us to reinvest in our communities and create a more equitable state,” Evers said in a statement before his address. “Frankly, red and blue states across the country have moved forward with legalization and there is no reason Wisconsin should be left behind when we know it’s supported by a majority of Wisconsinites.”
Of course, there’s every reason for Evers to push legalization. Non-binding ballot measures statewide in November 2018 helped push the Democrat over the top in defeating two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Speaking of Walker, Evers’ budget targets Act 10, the 2011 law that reformed Wisconsin’s public sector collective-bargaining. Walker’s cornerstone achievement has not only returned power back to taxpayers, it has saved them billions of dollars by requiring public employees contribute to their pensions and pay at least 12 percent of their health insurance costs. The budget plan also looks to repeal prevailing wage reforms and Wisconsin’s right-to-work law.
It’s all a nod to Big Labor, one of Evers’ most generous campaign benefactors.
Spoiling for a fight
It’s a budget intended for confrontation from a leftist governor who has falsely painted himself as the great compromiser. After ignoring a Republican-led legislative joint resolution earlier this month that ended the governor’s use — and abuse — of ongoing emergency declarations, Evers issued yet another order and statewide mask mandate. It’s the latest dispute between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democrat-led executive branch that has ended up at the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The budget proposal includes all kinds of nonstarters. Evers, again, seeks to expand Medicaid under the promise of “free money” from a deeply in debt federal government that repeatedly has failed to honor its financial commitments. And its loaded down with all kinds of left-wing special interest initiatives – chief among them, an alarmist and costly climate change activist agenda.
“We cannot ignore the role environmental justice plays in building a state where every family in every zip code can be successful. The climate crisis is taking an undeniable toll on folks across our state,” Evers said.
State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) quipped that in most budgets the devil is in the details, but in Evers’ budget the “devils are in plain sight.”
“We already know that he is proposing doubling or tripling local sales taxes, legalizing drug use, and letting criminals out of jail, and we haven’t even read the legislation yet,” the senator said. “If that’s what he’s highlighting as the ‘good things’ in the budget, I shudder to think what he hasn’t told us.”
As he often does, Evers blamed Republicans for even thinking about rejecting the myriad poison pills with which he has packed his partisan budget proposal. In Obama-ite fashion, Evers is using the pandemic as the good crisis du jour that we shouldn’t let go to waste.
“You can disagree with me if you want, but don’t punish the people we serve so you can settle a score no one but you is keeping,” Evers said, without a drop of self-awareness. “Each time a bill fails to pass, each time a compromise ends up in flames, each time legislators lose sight of the people who sent you here, the disappointment, the resentment, and the disparities grow.”
He added that, “We must be unafraid to agree …” Evers’ empty aphorism was really about Republican lawmakers agreeing with his far left agenda.
There are some potential areas of agreement. Several Republican lawmakers expressed support for Evers’ $100 million, state-funded venture capital plan. And they like the governor’s call for a continued tuition freeze at Wisconsin’s public universities. The problem is, Evers asks taxpayers to pay for it with $190 million in additional funding for the University of Wisconsin System.
Evers budget seeks more education funding, something many Republicans could get behind. But the governor, formerly superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction, is seeking a whopping $1.6 billion increase in DPI’s budget. The boost would come on top of nearly $1 billion in COVID-19 relief funding for Wisconsin’s K-12 schools, many, of course, that have repeatedly rejected calls by parents, lawmakers and world-renown disease control experts to reinstate in-person learning.
Fiscally speaking, Evers’ budget is a nightmare. According to preliminary estimates, the budget would create a $1.34 billion deficit at the end of the 2023-25 budget, and leave a structural deficit of $938 million by the end of fiscal year 2023.
“While there are items in the budget we can agree and build on – things like funding our schools and expanding the Child Psychiatry Consultation Program – I along with my Assembly Republican colleagues will be focused on bringing to the table a budget that reflects Wisconsin priorities, not another liberal wish list,” said Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke.
Read Evers’ budget in brief here.