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Wisconsin Budget Debate: What Kind of State Do We Want? | Opinion

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by Ruth Conniff, Wisconsin Examiner
February 1, 2023

It was remarkable to watch Republican legislators sit on their hands and scowl as Gov. Tony Evers delivered his assessment in last week’s State of the State address that Wisconsin is in the best fiscal shape in state history, with a record-breaking budget surplus and record high employment. They actually looked mad about it.

Evers laid out his plans for addressing some of the state’s most pressing problems using the unprecedented more than $6.6 billion surplus. We’ll soon hear more details, as budget season gets underway this month. But we’ve already got the broad outlines of the coming debate.

Evers wants to fund our schools, support small businesses, address the mental health crisis, and beat back the scourge of PFAS “forever chemicals” in drinking water in communities all over Wisconsin.

As he discussed those priorities, Republicans sat frowning. After the speech they complained that Evers was “trying to spend a lot of money” and declared his proposals “dead on arrival.” Seriously?

We have a record amount of money. More than ever in state history. Yet Republicans claim we can’t afford to take simple steps to safeguard citizens’ health and well-being. Meanwhile, they want to radically rejigger the tax code so the very highest earners pay less than the lowest earners pay under the current, progressive tax system. Under their flat tax proposal, the surplus would evaporate in a few short years. And we’d be on the road to permanent austerity.

A lot of the coming budget debate is going to revolve around what we want Wisconsin to look like. Those of us who have lived here for more than a couple of decades can remember what it was like to have well funded schools, a well maintained infrastructure and clean, safe water.

Evers is talking about restoring and protecting that legacy. “Now is the time to stay prudent, to save smart, and to be bold with reasonable investments to keep building a lasting legacy of prosperity,” he said in the State of the State. He proudly noted that things have improved on his watch (thanks largely to an influx of federal pandemic relief money he was able to distribute without the Legislature’s involvement. “We’ve gotten to work fixing the darn roads,” Evers declared, along with expanding high-speed internet and putting a larger share of federal pandemic relief money directly into small businesses than any other state.

Republicans, in contrast, want to continue throttling funding for schools, local governments, and environmental cleanup. The drinking water crisis is a good example of where their vision is taking us.

At the end of the last legislative session, the River Alliance of Wisconsin sent out a message to members highlighting the crisis: All six of Wausau’s wells tested at unsafe levels of PFAS, forcing the city to share emergency supplies of bottled water with residents. The popular trout stream, Black Earth Creek, was identified as a PFAS hot spot along with Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Marinette, Peshtigo, Rhinelander, the Town of Rib Mountain, and many other communities all over Wisconsin. Two dozen private wells in the northern Wisconsin town of Stella were recently found to have dangerously high PFAS levels.

Yet legislative leaders could not even be bothered to hold a hearing on the CLEAR Act, which would have addressed PFAS contamination in the last session. The Legislature also dropped the ball on amending the well compensation grant program to make more funding available to thousands of Wisconsinites with nitrate-contaminated wells. Evers vetoed a pro-polluter bill that passed both houses of the Legislature requiring “peer review of administrative rules,” meaning companies that faced possible regulation could demand the chance to look over and make recommendations about efforts to regulate them, slowing down the process and potentially gumming up PFAS and other health and safety rules forever.

While Republican appointee Frederick Prehn was squatting on the DNR’s Natural Resources Board, refusing to give up his seat in order to maintain a GOP majority, the board rejected DNR’s proposed groundwater rule regulating PFAS in the drinking water for about two-thirds of Wisconsin communities, and set standards for allowable levels of contamination in municipal water supplies more than three times higher than DNR’s proposed limit, which was already higher than the EPA recommendation.

All of this foot-dragging is what the Republicans mean when they talk about less government and more liberty. The low-tax, high-pollution paradise they envision might be appealing for some industries, but it’s a hellscape for ordinary Wisconsinites who prefer a state with good schools, functioning infrastructure and potable water.

In the new session, there is hope that the Legislature will get motivated to address contaminated drinking water — a lot of which is located in Republican legislative districts — now that Evers has been reelected by a convincing margin. Legislature leaders seem to be reluctantly accepting the fact that he’s the governor and Prehn, whose sit-in they supported, has finally gotten out of the way. A Republican-led committee even seems poised to allow Wisconsinites to drink safe water.

But get ready for a lot of objections that we can’t afford to support small businesses, restore funding for schools after decades of disinvestment, or address pressing environmental needs.

It’s a pretty disingenuous argument coming from the people who want to flush away $5 billion through their flat tax by 2026-27. Contrast that with the $1 billion it would cost to lift the state’s special ed reimbursement to schools to 90%.

Ever since the Legislature deleted the requirement that per pupil spending in Wisconsin keep pace with inflation from state law in 2009, school spending has eroded by about $4,000 per student, according to Ann Chapman, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards’ research director. Chapman has a comprehensive PowerPoint on the long decline in school funding in Wisconsin.

The top priorities for public school advocates in the coming session are a “recovery budget” that increases the state’s share of special ed over the current 31.7%, raises revenue limits so schools can actually use the education money that legislators say they’ve allocated — but which could only go to property tax cuts in the last budget, since the Legislature refused to lift mandatory caps on school spending, and to allow per pupil spending to keep up with inflation.

The Mequon-Thiensville school district is asking for $1,500 per pupil and a 100% reimbursement for special education.

Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) thinks that’s over the top. He points to one-time federal pandemic relief funding that was supposed to cover new HVAC systems, hybrid learning and other expenses through the COVID crisis, to argue that Wisconsin schools are awash in cash.

But long-term data from the Wisconsin Budget Project shows we’ve made $3.9 billion in cuts to schools since 2012, at the same time the state has doled out $13.6 billion in tax cuts.

As Evers put it in the State of the State, handing out “big breaks to the wealthiest 20 % of earners isn’t responsible, folks; it’s reckless.”

Keep that recklessness in mind during the coming state budget debate.

This story was written by Ruth Conniff, editor-in-chief at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.