RACINE — The budget ball is now in Gov. Tony Evers’ court.
After the 2019-21 biennial budget was passed by the Republican-controlled state Assembly and Senate, the Democratic governor is assessing which parts of the budget, if any, to veto or whether to veto the entire budget.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is “optimistic” that Evers will sign most of the budget.
Evers received the budget on Friday. He has until July 5 to decide what to do.
The Journal Times asked Evers’ office about specific provisions in the budget regarding transportation and education, along with several Racine County-centered provisions. Evers’ office did not specifically respond.
Evers’ office stated that the governor’s “team is reviewing the Legislature’s changes to the budget, and the governor looks forward to receiving the biennial budget bill as soon possible.”
When speaking recently to a joint meeting of the editorial boards of the The Journal Times and Kenosha News, Vos and several other area Republicans discussed the aspects of the budget they regard as positive.
Vos said he took the Evers’ proposals to put money toward improving infrastructure, education, health care and taxes and believes that the Legislature-approved budget “accomplished what (Evers) wanted.”
“Albeit in a different route,” Vos said, adding that the Legislature froze tuition at the University of Wisconsin System, and property taxes are lower than Evers proposed.
“The reality is he’s the governor for four years, so you can either choose to argue 24/7, or set aside things that would cause arguments and focus on the things where you can hopefully find that middle ground,” Vos said.
In the original budget there were provisions that would have legalized marijuana and provided drivers cards to undocumented immigrants, which Vos called a “radical liberal wish list.” Those were taken out of the budget.
But a couple of legislators whose districts include parts of Racine County say the GOP version of the budget doesn’t go far enough.
State Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, whose 28th Senate District includes the Village and Town of Waterford, was one two Senate Republicans to vote against the budget. The other was state Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, whose 11th Senate District includes the southwest corner of the Town of Burlington.
“My constituents did not send me to Madison to substantially increase the size of government. Unfortunately, that is what this budget does,” Craig said in a statement after the Senate approved the budget on Thursday. “I remain gravely concerned over the excessive levels of spending and its impacts on current and future taxpayers.
“While I am encouraged by the included income tax cut, Wisconsin remains a high-tax state and the overall spending in this budget all but guarantees we will remain so. This budget fails in its primary function, to appropriately limit the size, and thus the role, of government in our lives.”
One of the biggest sticking points was the expansion of Medicaid, which Republicans were not in favor of and thus did not make it into the Legislature’s budget.
Vos said because of how the federal law is set up, if able-bodied people earn beyond the threshold of what Medicaid allows to be covered, they could lose coverage, which he believes disincentivizes people from working more.
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“If we put more people into Medicaid, even if we have it at a higher rate, they’re going to be trapped in a life of poverty,” Vos said. “I didn’t support the (Affordable Care Act) but it’s the law of the land so let’s use it while we can. It allows somebody to buy that premium, have the $50 deductible … and they can carry that insurance with them.”
Area Democrats say that not including Medicaid expansion in the budget was a “missed opportunity.”
State Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said Evers’ budget “responds to the reality that I see knocking on doors, at town halls, on the street, and in grocery stores.”
Neubauer added that by not taking the Medicaid expansion it could cause the state to “spend approximately $300 million more in state taxpayer dollars.”
“This budget was built on conversations with actual people,” Neubauer said. “Gov. Evers listened to the people of our state, and prioritized pro-active, evidence-based policies designed to build a better future for Wisconsinites. The budget Assembly Republicans passed (Tuesday) falls far short of the governor’s proposal, turning this into a budget full of missed opportunities.”
State Rep. Tip McGuire, D-Somers, whose district includes part of southeast Racine County, said the budget failed to bring tax dollars back to the state through the Medicaid expansion and failed to address the “dark store” loophole, which allows operating big box stores to be assessed in comparison to shuttered similar properties.
“And, as a result, it does nothing to strengthen our communities and gives less than half of the tax break of the governor’s proposed budget,” McGuire said. “Finally, this budget is a missed opportunity to properly invest in our schools and support our teachers and students, especially in special education.”
Another major point of tension among lawmakers is funding for road improvements. Evers supported raising the gas tax by 8 cents, and Vos did support increasing the tax; instead fees were increased in the Legislature’s budget.
Even among Republicans it’s difficult to find consensus on how to fund infrastructure improvements.
State Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem Lakes, said she would have like to see some funding going toward vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as to one way to pay for the wear and tear on the roads, and that this is “something that we have to look at long term.”
In the budget there is $2.5 million to fund a study on VMT to see what could be the best option.
“As cars become more fuel-efficient, people will use less gas,” Kerkman said. “It wasn’t exactly what I want, but again it’s one of those compromises that you have to sit at the table and have that.”
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, doesn’t like the idea of VMT.
“It seems like Big Brother getting involved in your life,” Wanggaard said. “The problem is we’re all on a different page here. We don’t have enough education as to what all the ins and outs are.”
State Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Caledonia, said funding for road improvements cannot be looked at on its own and the whole tax structure needs to be addressed.
“If we want to find a solution to transportation, some of the linkage has to come to comprehensive tax reform,” Wittke said. “But just pulling out one thing and saying ‘Should it be the gas tax?’ That may be a short-term solution to fund a certain level, tolling might provide another distance we can go, vehicle miles traveled can be in that, but it all rolls into one as far as what we do with our entire tax structure.”
State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, said the GOP budget doesn’t adequately address funding for road improvements.
“They missed an opportunity to come up with a sustainable solution to the problems with our roads and other transportation infrastructure,” Wirch said. “The people of Wisconsin spoke up in November 2018 by voting for Gov. Evers, saying these are priorities that we need to address. The Republican budget passed (Thursday) doesn’t do that.”