By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The state Legislature this week takes up a Republican budget proposal that delivers $3.4 billion in tax cuts and has been described as the most conservative spending plan in a decade.
And liberals just might vote for it.
It’s at least looking more and more likely Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will sign it — with some partial vetoes he’ll use to sell to voters that this budget is more his than the Republican-controlled Legislature’s.
It won’t be.
“Not only is this the most conservative budget in a generation, it’s also a budget that Democrats would be foolish not to vote for,” a Republican legislative aide told Empower Wisconsin.
But the Legislature’s minority party has shown time after time that fools rush in …
Still, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), a member of the Republican-led Joint Finance Committee that re-wrote Evers’ tax-and-spend, $87 billion state budget, has said he expects some of his fellow Democrats to vote for the proposal. That would be a big change from last time around, when not a single Democrat voted for the current two-year budget, which Evers ultimately signed with controversial vetoes.
“I don’t know [how I’m voting],” Erpenbach told WKOW. “I would not be surprised at all if some Democrats vote for the budget. The budget overall, compared to previous budgets, really, is not bad.”
It’s very difficult to be the party that rejects $3.4 billion in tax relief, which includes approximately $2.3 billion in income tax reductions. Under the JFC bill, property taxes would decline by $650 million, and it would eliminate Wisconsin’s antiquated personal property tax on businesses.
Despite all of their grousing about not enough education funding and the Republicans’ rejection again of a costly Medicaid expansion, the budget bill before the state Assembly today and the Senate on Wednesday includes plenty of what Dems sought. Perhaps tops on that list is two-thirds state funding for K-12 education.
Evers has threatened to veto the entire budget if he doesn’t get more of what he wanted — and he wanted much — on Medicaid and education. But in many respects, the Republican budget has “boxed in” the governor, Capitol insiders say.
“I don’t know what the governor intends to do … I do know it would be politically foolish, bordering on suicidal, for him to reject” the historic tax cuts, said Sen. Duey Stroebel’s office. The Saukville Republican is a member of the Joint Finance Committee and a fiscal hawk.
Stroebel is on board with the budget as it stands, noting that it keeps state spending increases below 2 percent each year.
At the same time, Evers has billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding to spend as he sees fits, and Wisconsin’s schools are being showered with billions more in federal pandemic-related funding.
“Without any additional state funding, COVID relief funding alone will increase spending on Wisconsin’s K-12 schools by 15%, giving massive increases to big districts like Milwaukee ($11,242 / student), Racine ($5,138 / student), Beloit ($5,292 / student), etc.,” CJ Szafir, president of the Institute for Reforming Government, wrote in a column on the stunning numbers involved in federal pandemic relief to Wisconsin.
The Republican bill ensures that Wisconsin spends enough to uphold its end of the so-called “maintenance of effort” bargain that keeps the federal education money flowing.
“I think the maintenance of effort is the reason he (Evers) doesn’t veto it entirely. He doesn’t want to be responsible for that,” a legislative aide told Empower Wisconsin. “I’m hopeful this will be one of the most cut-and-dried budgets in a while.”
The Republican budget bill delivers “smart and targeted spending in core functions of government,” one legislative leadership aide told Empower Wisconsin. At the same time it moves to cut areas of government, including about 100 full-time equivalent positions. Republicans also jettisoned hundreds of costly non-fiscal policy items and liberal initiatives from the spending plan.
“Sen. Stroebel is proud to be a part of this budget. Unlike Gov. Evers’ budget, this is not a wish list,” Stroebel’s office said. “There are a lot of things fiscal conservatives should be proud of in this budget.”