MADISON — The 2017-19 biennial budget was supposed to be passed in June, and on Wednesday the State Assembly debated the budget late into the night.
As of 9:45 p.m. at press time, the Assembly had not officially passed the state budget. Later that evening, after 10 p.m., the assembly passed the budget.
Assembly members argued about, for example, taxes and how the state should fund transportation infrastructure and education.
One of the key issues in the budget affects Racine Unified School District and was receiving a significant amount of discussion on the Assembly floor.
Currently the district is facing the prospect of receiving another failing grade from the Department of Public Instruction. If it does fail again this fall, it could have major consequences for the future through the implementation of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.
Under that program if a school district receives a failing grade from the state two years in a row, a commissioner is appointed to create a separate district for the failing schools and also allow for area villages to go to referendums to start their own districts.
Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, introduced nearly a dozen amendments, all of which failed, regarding the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program in an effort delay a study from the state and the chance for villages to secede from Unified.
Mason urged the Assembly to vote on an amendment that would allow a study that would look specifically at the impact that villages breaking away from Unified would have on minority students.
“We have a constitutional responsibility to adequately educate each child,” Mason said. He added the OSPP could separate the students in the district into “the haves and the have-nots.”
In remarks on the floor, Mason said policy items such as the one about Unified should not be included in the budget. He said the OSPP could segregate white students from minorities, along with segregating affluent students from poor students.
Mason said what is being proposed “is about as disruptive a thing as you can do to the Racine Unified School District.
“Even if you don’t intend for that to be the case, what you are proposing here today is a new era of segregation,” Mason said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, criticized Mason’s comments. He charged that his speech was part of his mayoral campaign, as he is running for Racine mayor and has a primary election on Tuesday.
Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, said the legislation on OSPP is “not a racial issue — this is a taxpayer issue.”
In August, the Joint Finance Committee passed a provision that would delay the OSPP for one year. However, if the district fails this fall, DPI will commission a study that will evaluate the impact it would have on the district if villages such as Caledonia, Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant break from Unified to form their own districts.
Unified has been pushing legislators to delay the study for one year and delay referendums as the district attempts to improve its standing.
Other budget points
The budget would provide additional funding to Unified by $4 million in this school year and $8.2 million in 2018-19 school year. That’s not including any additional aid the district may receive through the school funding formula.
In an effort to help veterans, particular those who utilize the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove, 21425 Spring St., the budget would provide $53,943 in grants to help operate that facility.
The heavy rains that hit the City of Burlington in July exposed some infrastructure deficiencies. The budget would provide $50,000 to the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission during 2017-18 fiscal year to conduct a stormwater management study for that city.
The study would look at the location and destination of current stormwater flows, identify city property or private property that have stormwater capacity issues and provide recommendations to eliminate flooding at several of the city’s major businesses.
‘Robin Hood in reverse’
Vos championed the work done by the Joint Finance Committee, saying it’s a win for both Republicans and Democrats and also includes a roughly $200 million “rainy day fund.”
However, Vos said the budget is “not perfect,” particularly when it comes to transportation and taxes.
“Our tax code needs a major overhaul,” Vos said. “We still know our education funding formula needs updating.”
Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, whose district includes part of southeastern Racine County, said the budget will favor the wealthiest in the state and could impact working-class families.
“We have one of the most diminished middle classes in the entire nation,” Barca said from the Assembly floor. “This budget is rigged against the working people of the state.”
Barca said the budget is “Robin Hood in reverse,” and it’s possible it doesn’t have the votes for passage by the State Senate.
But, Barca did agree with Vos, saying he is “right on target” regarding how the budget doesn’t fully address transportation in the state
Barca said he appreciates Interstate 94 funding in Kenosha County, but it could create problems for people in other parts of the state.
“The problem is there’s virtually no resources for anyone else in the state,” Barca said. “Over the next two years our roads are going to get far worse.”