In the first State of the State address of his second term, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday proposed boosting mental health spending and increasing funding for public education and local governments — proposals that may see some support from the Republican-controlled Legislature, depending on the price tag.
Evers also unveiled proposals to cut taxes, invest more than $100 million to confront PFAS contamination, and support child care providers. All told, Evers’ list of proposals would increase state spending by more than $1 billion.
Citing the state’s surplus, which is projected to reach nearly $6.9 billion, Evers said: “We have roads and bridges to fix, schools to fund, kids to support, communities to keep safe, water to keep clean and a future we’ve built together after years of neglect that, today, we must work to protect.”
Absent from Evers’ speech were many of his recent talking points, such as repealing Wisconsin’s abortion ban, legalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid — topics he highlighted in his recent inaugural address, a speech Republican legislative leaders described as too partisan.
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Most measures Evers proposed will be included in his upcoming 2023-25 biennial budget proposal, which he will present Feb. 15, and would require Republican approval — a big ask for the Democratic governor.
“That is a lot of money,” Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, said after Evers delivered his address. “We have to keep in mind a lot of the surplus that we have is one-time money and it seems that the governor tonight was spending down that one-time money on ongoing expenses, which could put us in a massive deficit in the future.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a Tuesday interview with WisconsinEye he expects the GOP-led Legislature to handle Evers’ proposal as they have the past two cycles, by stripping the budget down to its base and starting over.
Speaking with reporters after Evers’ speech, Vos said he’s “open to being persuaded” on some of the governor’s ideas, but reiterated that Republicans’ top priority this coming budget session is cutting taxes.
“We’re not going to grow the size of government and then, whatever the scraps are, give those back to the taxpayers,” Vos said.
Mental health, education initiatives
Calling 2023 the “Year of Mental Health,” Evers said his upcoming two-year budget would spend around $500 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health services.
That includes $270 million to permanently fund a state program providing school-based mental health services. His proposal comes after the Office of Children’s Mental Health found in its 2022 report that around a third of children feel sad and hopeless almost every day, a 10% increase over the last decade.
“Improving student mental health can also improve student learning outcomes and school attendance, while reducing bullying, risky behaviors, violence, involvement in the juvenile justice system and substance misuse,” Evers said Tuesday.
Other mental health investments he will propose in his budget include $3 million for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline call center and a $1.8 million investment to establish a 25-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility for youths with “intensive behavioral health needs,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Asked whether he would support Evers’ $500 million request to fund mental health services, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said, “that’s a lot of money,” but declined to say what amount he would support.
Evers also proposed using some of the state’s surplus to fund local schools
“For years, communities have raised their own property taxes to keep their local schools afloat,” Evers said. “And while some school districts have successfully passed referenda to help keep the school lights on, many have tried and failed.”
He called for spending over $20 million to recruit, develop and retain teachers and student teachers.
Evers has proposed a $2 billion increase in funding for public schools. Vos and LeMahieu have said they’d be willing to consider an increase if Evers approves expanding the state’s private school voucher program.
But Vos previously called the governor’s proposal excessive, and Evers said universal school choice is a nonstarter. It remains unclear where the Republican leaders and Evers would compromise on education.
Evers also highlighted the lack of child care options in communities across Wisconsin. He proposed spending $340 million to continue a pandemic-era program that provides payments to child care facilities to increase wages and offset other operating costs.
Tax cuts and shared revenue
Evers pledged to deliver tax relief to Wisconsinites, though he and the GOP legislative leaders have floated drastically different proposals for doing so.
Evers has called for tax cuts that benefit the middle class. Specifically, he has floated a plan providing a 10% tax cut for individuals earning $100,000 or less a year and married filers making $150,000 or less. Republican legislators, on the other hand, have released a plan to switch Wisconsin’s progressive income tax to a 3.25% flat tax, which Evers criticized Tuesday.
“Spending billions on a flat tax isn’t a workforce plan or an economic development plan,” he said. “We need to bolster the middle class, we need to maintain our economy’s momentum, and we need to reduce barriers to work and recruit and retain talent to address our state’s workforce challenges.”
Evers also unveiled a plan to send up to 20% of the state’s sales tax revenue back to local communities through the shared-revenue program, which provides money to local governments to help fund basic services. LeMahieu has floated the idea of diverting 1% of the state sales tax to replace shared revenue.
Evers said his plan “means more than half a billion dollars more per year in new resources to invest in key priorities like EMS, fire, and law enforcement services, transportation, local health and human services, and other challenges facing our communities.”
LeMahieu and Vos have expressed support for increased funding to local governments, but both said specifics were not available Tuesday.
$106 million to combat PFAS
Evers also wants to spend $106 million in the upcoming budget to combat PFAS contamination. The money would go toward helping local communities, increasing staff and resources at the state Department of Natural Resources, and increasing PFAS testing, sampling and monitoring.
“The work we must do to address PFAS and other contaminants grows harder and more expensive with each day of delay,” he said. “Partisan politics cannot keep getting in the way of this work while Wisconsinites worry about the water coming from their tap.”
Evers also proposed spending $50 million on a grant program that would provide up to 5,000 businesses with $10,000 grants they could use toward expenses such as mortgage payments and building updates.
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