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Gov. Evers budget proposal: raise minimum wage, explore public option, increase school funding

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Governor Tony Evers

MADISON (WKOW) -- In a sweeping budget proposal, Governor Tony Evers included a number of measures he tried to pass two years ago, some of which had broad public support, but are likely to be removed by the Republican majority in the legislature that controls the state's budget committee.

The measure calls for a total of more than $90 million of state spending over the two-year cycle. Evers' budget largely funds the initiative through more than $1 billion in tax increases.

Evers proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.15 by 2024 following a series of incremental increases, starting with a bump to $8.60 followed by another raise to $9.40 by the start of 2023.

Evers also included a measure creating a state-based exchange through the Affordable Care Act. It's part of a proposal to expand the state's acceptance of Medicaid money to cover all Wisconsinites who need it, which the governor's office estimated would benefit around 90,000 people.

In preparation for the possibility a future GOP majority in Congress takes out the law or a conservative-majority on the Supreme Court strikes down the health care law, Evers' budget also calls for the exploration of a new public option where, essentially, people could buy into the BadgerCare system.

Evers had previously released plans to propose legalizing both recreational and medical marijuana.

In those areas, Evers is taking another swing at measures he proposed in his first biennial budget proposal in 2019; respondents to a January 2019 Marquette Law School poll largely supported expanding BadgerCare through acceptance of more Obamacare money.

All told, the proposal increases the state's spending by 10 percent over the next two years. The state would have an overall operating budget of $45.4 billion in the first year of the budget and $45.6 billion in the second.

As presented, Evers' budget leaves the state operating at a deficit, spending more money than it brings in, by the fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

Evers defended the spending increase, citing the more than $1 billion in the state's opening balance. He said given the pandemic, this was the time to make bold investments.

"Don't let anyone tell you we can't afford to make health care more accessible while saving your hard-earned tax dollars," Evers said. "Don't let anyone tell you we can't afford to fully fund our public schools."

Evers also included a popular measure of having a nonpartisan entity draw the legislative district maps for the next 10 years; currently, it's a job left to legislators and the lawyers they hire to defend those maps against legal challenges.

"After all we’ve been through, we aren’t going to apologize for wanting more for each other," Evers said in his remarks. "For our neighbors, for our kids, our parents and grandparents, and our state’s future."

Poll respondents have also increased their support for recreational marijuana over the past few years. Evers touted the estimated $165 million in annual revenue that part of his proposal would generate.

GOP Pushback

Republicans said the level of spending makes the budget untenable in their eyes, calling it a "liberal wishlist."

"They've directed their agencies and their cabinets and their budget shop to incorporate every bit of political talking-point garbage that they could come up with that they haven't done yet," said Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton).

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said while GOP lawmakers could work with some parts of the budget, including a major investment in rural broadband expansion, they also took issue with a number of other items they believed had no place in a budget proposal.

"Putting poison pills in the budget, which are things that he clearly knows have zero chance of ever passing a Republican legislature, like the repeal of Act 10 or the legalization of marijuana, really seem to be a way that looks like he's not serious about governing," Vos said. "He's serious about politics."

Republican senators Chris Kapenga and Duey Stroebel have already publicly said they reject the idea of legalizing marijuana, labeling it as dangerous given the uncertain science around long-term effects the drug's use might have on brain development.

In his budget, Evers also proposed raising the tobacco age to 21 and prohibiting the use of vaping products indoors and on school grounds.

School Spending

One of the sources of proposed spending that drives the 10 percent increase in expenditures is a proposal to direct nearly $613 million to schools over the next biennium. If approved, it would be the largest state budget allocation to schools in 15 years.

The proposal would also restore an former state statute requiring the state provided two-thirds funding of partial school district revenues.

For higher education, Evers' budget increased the UW System's general operating expenses by $20 million in each of the next two years. He also proposed freezing tuition for the next two years.

"Badger Bounceback"

To help the state recover from the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Evers' budget proposal called for a $200 million relief package dedicated to small businesses.

Evers touted it was part of an investment into the Wisconsin Economic Development Council larger than what the business development body received over the past six years combined.

"We know that if we want to come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger than ever, we need to commit to investing in innovation and economic growth," Evers said.

The "Badger Bounceback" section of the budget also called for a $100 million venture capital program dedicated to startups and other areas specific to innovation.

Unemployment qualifications & a system overhaul

Evers' budget includes a number of provisions that would make it easier for people to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

One of the measures would permanently end the one-week waiting period, the existence of which is currently costing the state $1.3 million a week in federal aid.

Under Evers' budget, the maximum weekly rate for unemployment payouts would increase from $370 to $409 by the start of next year before increasing to 50 percent of the recipient's average weekly wage in 2023 and 75 percent of the average weekly wage in 2024.

The Evers administration also said it was now moving to achieve a complete overhaul of the DWD's claim processing system within the next year.

Evers initially called for a special session where lawmakers would commit to spending about $5 million to begin the process. His administration then pivoted to wanted a long-term commitment from legislators to fund the entire project, which had an estimated $90 million cost.

The administration said by taking on the entire project and once and completing the overhaul within a year, the cost would be $79 million, saving taxpayers the remaining amount of would-be interest costs.

Keeping the wheels (and web) moving

The budget commits a total of $565.6 million in federal and state funds toward the major highway projects program.

The Evers administration said it has no plans to increase the gas tax, adding it might consider "minimal" increases on feeds. Those are the two largest sources of transportation revenue for Wisconsin, both of which dropped in 2020 due largely to people not traveling as much during the pandemic.

The budget also included $15 million for a pilot program dedicated to repairing local roads that face the risk of destruction from flooding.

Evers made expanding broadband internet into rural and underserved urban communities a staple of his plans for 2021.

In the budget, he committed $200 million to building out the state's broadband infrastructure. Evers said it was an amount five times greater than the what the state had spent on broadband in the previous three budget cycles.

Criminal justice reform

Evers' budget included a wide range initiatives related to the juvenile criminal justice system with a stated goal of reducing the amount of kids incarcerated.

The proposals come at a controversial time as both Milwaukee and Madison are dealing with ongoing annual increases in reported car thefts, a surge police in both cities say is driven mainly by teenage offenders.

Evers' proposal calls for no longer charging 17-year-old suspects as adults; Wisconsin is currently one of only three states that do so.

The governor's budget also modifies the conditions for which juvenile offenders can be charged as adults and would prohibit judges from sentencing juvenile suspects to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Evers' budget also emphasizes the long-stated goal of moving juvenile offenders into resdiental detention facilities closer to their homes after shutting down the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons.

The Northwoods facilities were supposed to have already closed but the state hasn't yet found a way to pay counties to construct new facilities, which the counties would then run.

The Evers administration said on a press call those funding details would come later.

The budget also calls for new restrictions on firearm sales; Evers' proposal would require almost all gun sales to be conducted through federally-licensed dealers.

Evers also proposed allowing courts to rule someone was unable to have a firearm because they're deemed a threat either to themselves or someone else.

The budget proposal also folds marijuana legalization into the criminal justice reform section. The Evers administration seeks to take 60 percent of the $165 million estimated annual revenue and put it into a new "community reinvestment" fund.

Continuing an old fight

10 years after passage of the landmark Act 10 law that largely stripped public employee unions of collective bargaining rights, Evers' budget restores many of those rights.

In referencing his sweeping proposed changes, Evers took a shot at the Republican legislature and his predecessors in the Walker administration.

"We can make excuses for the last decade of decision makers who cut corners or we can commit right now to start putting people first," Evers said.

While Evers' office told reporters on a press call the plan would still keep the 88/12 split through which public workers now pay for a share of their health insurance, Republican lawmakers indicated it's another measure that has no chance of appearing in the budget bill lawmakers return to Evers.

Author Profile Photo

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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