Now that Gov. Scott Walker has sent his 2013-15 spending plan to the Legislature, he heads up to Appleton on Thursday to visit an electric manufacturing company and stump for some of his budget priorities, including nearly $100 million in new funding for job and skills training.
Democrats and even some Republicans made it clear after Wednesday night's budget address that they still have a lot of questions about the governor's proposed budget, especially his plan to greatly expand the number of schools that could receive publicly funded vouchers to be used at private schools.
But details of a proposed income tax cut targeting middle-income families took center stage during Walker’s speech.
"You, the hardworking taxpayers of this state, helped to create the budget surplus, so it is only right that we put more money back into your hands," Walker said.
A family of four making $80,000 a year would save about $106 annually, or about $2 per week, on state income taxes under the plan, according to the state Department of Revenue. All people in the state who pay income taxes would be affected.
Much of the rest of the governor’s $68 billion 2013-15 budget, which includes about $30.5 billion in state spending over two years, already had been laid out in previous announcements. That includes what could be his most contentious proposal — to expand the state’s private school voucher program to several new cities, including Madison. Some Republicans already have questioned the expansion.
Walker also is calling for more funding to combat domestic violence, a continued freeze on spending in public schools, tightened income eligibility for Medicaid recipients, more money for mental-health care, an increase for higher education, more funding for job training and selling some state properties to pay for road, highway and bridge projects.
The governor is proposing a state spending increase of $202.4 million to about $14.9 billion (a 1.4 percent increase) over the first fiscal year, and an increase of $529 million to $15.5 billion (a 3.5 percent increase) over the following year. When all funds are included, the operating budget totals nearly $68 billion over two years.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, criticized the governor for failing to target the poorest residents with his income tax cut. He noted that low-income workers were the only ones who saw a tax increase in the last budget when Walker and legislative Republicans reduced the Earned Income Tax Credit.
"Last budget, make no mistake about it, the governor raised taxes on those that most needed help," Barca said. "And people that work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, that are struggling to get into the middle class — that’s who definitely need help the most — and it helps the economy the most."
In his more than 40-minute speech, Walker said his focus is "more prosperity, better performance and true independence" for all Wisconsinites.
He stressed the theme of independence when talking about his proposals to tighten requirements for entitlement programs like Medicaid eligibility, unemployment insurance and food stamps.
"I’m all for providing a temporary hand up, but for those who are able-bodied, it should not be a permanent hand out," Walker said. "I care for the people of this state too much to force them to live a life of dependence on the government."
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There were some surprises in Walker’s budget that did not come up during his speech. The state would add more than 700 new positions, many of them at the state Department of Transportation, which has determined that hiring engineers is cheaper than contracting with private engineering firms. His budget also calls for new employees in the revenue and health departments to combat fraud and increase tax collections.
And the governor has touted his budget-cutting prowess, but his administration is now projecting to have unfunded commitments totaling $188 million by the end of the two-year budget in 2015. Walker’s budget still would end with a $43 million positive balance.
Walker has said the state would pay for the $343 million in income tax cuts using a projected budget surplus for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The administration predicts the economic picture will improve due to revenue growth.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, said that the tax cuts would help all income levels, including high-wage earners, but the biggest rate cut would be for those earning between $20,000 and about $210,000 a year.
"Everyone is going to see that reduction," he said.
Walker delivered his budget address to the Republican-controlled Legislature in the Assembly chamber Wednesday night. The proposal then heads to the Legislature’s powerful finance committee, where it will be debated — and likely changed — before it is voted on by the Senate and Assembly before it goes into effect, likely in July.
That committee was scheduled to meet after the speech to receive the budget.
Parts of Walker’s budget, such as his plan to expand school voucher programs, have already drawn opposition, even from his fellow Republicans.
But the governor says his proposal is focused on students.
"In the end, our goal is simple: ensure that every child — regardless of where they are from or what their family income is — has access to a great education," Walker said.
The Republican governor is also going against the recommendations of a task force he created to study ways to fund transportation projects. That group recommended a series of changes including a gas tax increase and fee hikes. Walker instead has said he will sell or lease some state properties, including state-owned power plants at prisons, university campuses and elsewhere, to raise $824 million in extra money for highways, roads and bridges, unless the property’s sale is prohibited by law or the state Constitution.