MADISON — Republican lawmakers on Thursday panned Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to increase Wisconsin’s minimum wage and said his budget proposal fails to match his campaign pledges to overhaul the state criminal justice system.
Evers’ pick for Corrections secretary, Kevin Carr, testified he wants to “change the culture” in the state’s correctional system and said he’s comfortable with Evers’ proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The comments came during the second day of briefings by Evers administration officials on his budget plan before the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
In past years, lawmakers have built the state budget based on what the governor proposes. This year, with partisan control of state government split, GOP lawmakers say they’re likely to build their own budget. It remains unclear how that could lead to a compromise on a budget the governor and Legislature can both support.
Evers’ budget proposes to increase the state’s minimum wage — which now matches the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour — to $10.50 by 2023. It ties future increases to inflation and creates a task force to look at eventually increasing the wage to $15.
Democratic lawmakers said Evers’ minimum-wage plan gives a much-needed earnings boost to low-income Wisconsinites.
But GOP lawmakers were skeptical. Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said his career started when he did farm work for $5 a day. He said he’s concerned about the prospect of “unintended consequences” from increasing the minimum wage, such as employers automating low-wage jobs.
Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, said he used to be a minimum-wage earner and, at that time, was intent on “improving.”
“If we just raise it (minimum wage), what incentive would I possibly have had to improve?” Zimmerman said.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said it’s strange to hear lawmakers argue that paying people a living wage could hurt them.
“Only a very privileged person could make such an argument,” Taylor said.
Evers’ proposal would increase unemployment benefits and remove barriers to qualify. Some Republicans on the committee, including Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, questioned if the changes could make unemployment benefits too easy — or too enticing — to obtain.
Evers’ budget also includes some provisions to repeal measures enacted by Republicans under former Gov. Scott Walker. It would restore the state prevailing wage requirement for public works projects and repeal the so-called “right-to-work” law that bars unions from requiring workers, as a condition of employment, to pay fees that cover a share of the costs of union representation.
Other Republicans on the committee said Evers’ budget fails to address the state’s worker shortage.
GOP lawmakers said Evers’ budget fails to match his campaign calls to reduce the state’s prison population by half, end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and end mandatory minimum sentences.
Carr — a former U.S. marshal and veteran of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office — said he wants to “change the culture” in the state’s correctional system by reducing the use of restrictive housing and treating everyone with “dignity, respect and compassion.”
Carr also said he supports Evers’ plan to delay the planned 2021 closure of the state’s troubled youth prison north of Wausau. A 2018 law requires the eventual closure of the facility and calls for replacing it with smaller regional facilities for juvenile offenders.
Evers has said he wants to wait until the new facilities are built to close Lincoln Hills.
“The governor and I want to close Lincoln Hills as soon as there is an appropriate facility that can accept our youth,” Carr said.
Carr added that following the recent adoption of new procedures and reducing the use of restrictive housing at the youth prison, assaults on staff there have declined by half.