A People’s Budget For Wisconsin

by Phil Anderson

Governor Tony Evers says his proposed budget “is the people’s budget.” It is intended to “put people first.” The details of his budget proposal show this is more than campaign rhetoric. There are a number of changes in policy and spending priorities that will positively impact most people in Wisconsin.  

Evers’ budget increases funding for schools, infrastructure, public health, and health care. These were important items either cut, or ignored, under the prior administration. The people of Wisconsin elected Evers largely because of his promise to restore school and public infrastructure funding. But reversing eight years of cutting these public investments will be painful. The two year $83.5 billion budget proposal is a 10 percent increase from the last budget and will have a $2 billion deficit. Playing catch-up creates budget problems. 

Let’s look at some of the specific changes beginning with health care. For irrational, purely ideological reasons, Republicans have ALWAYS opposed ANY sensible effort to make affordable healthcare more widely available to people. The Walker administration, for example, refused to accept about $1 billion in federal money to expand Medicaid during his tenure. Evers would accept this revenue. This will provide healthcare coverage for 82,000 additional people and save the state $320 million over the next two years. Evers’ budget also guarantees access to health insurance for preexisting conditions. The Wisconsin Budget Project has more details on other health related proposals and other budget changes at wisconsinbudgetproject.org and click on “2019-21 Budget”.   

For K-12 education Evers proposes returning to the state providing 2/3 of school funding. This was an excepted standard in the past. State funding provides more equal school funding across the state and keeps property taxes lower. The Evers budget substantially increases state school aids by $1.4 billion over the next two years. It will also address needs in early childhood education, after school programs, mental health problems, and improving the formula for distributing school aid.  

Higher education will also see increases in funding. The University of Wisconsin System would get a 6% boost in state support over two years. The undergraduate tuition freeze will continue but, unlike the prior administration, it will be funded with $50 million to replace lost tuition revenue. There is funding for new buildings and building maintenance. The technical college system will get a 2% two year increase in state support. Students would be helped with an additional $17 million in need-based grants to attend public and private schools. 

In keeping with the “people first” theme Evers’ budget has a number of provisions to invest in children. Helping children to thrive is a major focus of the bill’s spending priorities and policy provisions. In addition to school funding and expanded access to health care, there is additional funding for prenatal health and nutrition programs, preschool education, child care programs, and juvenile justice changes. The “Kids Forward” website discusses other budget items to help children at http://kidsforward.net/publication/key-initiatives-for-children-in-the-governors-2019-21-budget.  

The budget also provides money to combat lead in water supplies which is a major health issue for children. Lead in water is common in many areas of the state but especially in older and poorer neighborhoods. Evers wants to reduce the incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Wisconsin. He is proposing about $25 million per year for programs to test children and provide lead abatement services. He also wants $40 million in bonding to fund  up to 50 percent of the cost to replace residential lead service pipes. It is estimated that there are 170,000 lead service lines in Wisconsin that need to be replaced to reduce lead exposure.

In other environmental areas the budget would increase state funding for renewable energy and conservation. An additional $2.8 million is allocated for our state parks. The prior administration had eliminated state support for state parks in 2015, leaving the parks to survive on user fees. One would think, given the role of parks in tourism, that this would have huge bipartisan support.

To pay for all this Evers proposes increasing revenue through changes to the Manufacturing and Agriculture Tax Credit, capital gains taxes, gas tax, and accepting federal money to expand Medicaid. Republicans will, of course, oppose these changes. 
Despite having a budget deficit, Evers’ budget still calls for tax cuts. It seems every politician has to advocate for tax cuts. Both parties are proposing “middle class” income tax cuts. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project the Republican plan would cut taxes $344 million in 2021 compared to $415 million in 2020 for the Evers’ plan. This sounds like a lot of money but many taxpayers would see only $100 to $200 in reduced taxes. This is not enough to seriously impact most people’s personal finances. It is only political theater that ignores the real problems with taxes. What is really needed is a fair tax system that collects needed revenue to support the public services required of a modern society. Wisconsin could do a better job of fairly collecting needed revenue from everyone.   

There are a number of policy proposals in the budget that are not about budgets or spending.  
These are intended to improve people’s lives and undo some of the anti-labor polices of the prior administration.  Here is a partial list:
 
• Repeal the anti-union right-to-work law and reestablish the former prevailing wage law
• Raise the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour in 2020 and $9.00 per hour in 2021 with adjustments for inflation in future years 

• Repeal work and drug testing requirements for food stamps and Medicaid assistance

• Legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize up to 25 grams for recreational use

• Encourage green energy by requiring utilities be carbon-free by 2050.

• Begin working to create automatic voter registration using driver licenses. 

• End gerrymandering by having the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to redraw legislative and congressional redistricting maps

The new direction laid out in this budget will be good for most people. But given Republican control of the legislature, these proposals are not likely to pass. The budget battle will be long and bitter. Sensible compromise, finding common ground, or seeking the best solutions for the most people are unlikely to occur. In the end everyone will suffer from the political rancor and inability to pass a budget.