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Capital City Sunday: Evers defends proposed spending increase, GOP leaders snuff out marijuana legalization

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Gov. Tony Evers defends his push to increase state spending by 10 percent in his proposed two-year budget, saying it's the most reasonable response to a pandemic that dented the incomes of so many families and businesses.

Republicans said the $91 billion budget is unwieldy and reckless in its spending increase, which would dive deep into the state's $1 billion rainy day fund.

"I understand the numbers might be jarring," Evers said. "But the fact of the matter is we have an obligation as a state to really help our economy move forward and especially small businesses."

Evers' budget proposes the state spends more money than it brings in by fiscal year 2022, relying on the state's current positive balance to remain in the black.

"I'm not concerned about the balance sheet at all," Evers said. "I think we're gonna be in good shape. Our rainy day fund is as big as it's ever been and I think our budget is in good order."

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said Republicans had no plans to send back a budget to Evers with a spending level anywhere near what the governor proposed.

"$8 billion in spending increases - that's just unacceptable in the environment we're in," LeMahieu said. "We'll make sure we make investments in core priorities just as medical care and infrastructure."

LeMahieu said he would be on board with increased spending, particularly for technical colleges, as well as the governor's proposed massive investment in expanding rural broadband.

Evers made broadband a cornerstone of his agenda during last month's State of the State address.

LeMahieu took issue with Evers' idea for raising new revenue - about $1 billion in new tax collections - primarily funded through putting a cap on the manufacturing tax credit and raising capital gains taxes on high earners.

"Our manufacturers and our farming is the backbone of our state's economy," LeMahieu said. "We can't start raising taxes on them."

Evers' budget proposes capping the manufacturing tax credit at $300,000 and would not affect the agricultural portion of the credit.

Safe return to school

With regard to when it'd be safe to return to in-person learning across the state, Evers pointed to the districts that have already had some form of in-person learning the entire school year while avoiding large outbreaks.

"We have school districts all across the state, even in South Central Wisconsin, that have been in session, in-person for a long, long time," Evers said.

Evers also noted recent CDC guidance that teachers do not need to be vaccinated before a return to in-person learning. Still, Evers, who previously served as State Superintendent after a career in education, said he believed varying circumstances across the state meant he did not want to dictate how districts decide when they should send students back to the classroom.

"I've always left it up to the local folks to figure that out because they know their buildings better than I do and better than the legislature does," Evers said. "To a great extent, I think they've made the right decisions."

Putting policy in the budget

LeMahieu said Republicans were dismayed by the inclusion of what they considered policy ideals in the budget.

"I think there are some good things in the governor's budget but there's so much divisive policy that was included in the governor's budget and huge tax increases, huge spending increases," he said.

Republicans have specifically mentioned Evers' proposals to legalize recreational marijuana and largely repeal Act 10 and restore collective bargaining rights for public unions.

Evers said marijuana was a fiscal issue, given his administration's estimate it would bring in about $165 million a year in tax revenue.

"I'm particularly tired of seeing our tax dollars going across the border to northern Michigan or Illinois to go buy marijuana," Evers said. "So I think the time has come. I hope the legislature will agree with us."

LeMahieu did not agree. The top Senate Republican said he was firmly opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.

"I've heard from local law enforcement, law enforcement around the state have all taken stands it's really dangerous to be legalizing marijuana recreationally at this point," LeMahieu said.

LeMahieu's majority leader predecessor, Scott Fitzgerald, was also opposed to medical marijuana. An overwhelming majority of Wisconsin voters, 83 percent, supported legalizing marijuana according to a 2019 Marquette Law School poll.

LeMahieu said other Republicans in his caucus were floating separate bills to pass medical marijuana and to decriminalize the substance. He noted the drug remains illegal at the federal level and would need to be strongly regulated at a prescription drug in order for him to consider it.

A week of milestones

For the first time in 10 months, the legislature passed a bill and Evers signed it. Act 1, signed on Thursday, allows businesses who received a PPP loan to deduct it from their state taxes.

It amounts to a $540 million dollar tax cut.

Evers signed additional bills on Friday, most notably one allowing pharmacy techs and students to administer the vaccine.

The measure comes as state health officials celebrated Wisconsin administered one million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The 7-day average of new cases statewide is the lowest it's been since September.

UW-Madison has reported a spike in cases among its campus community, but local health officials said that could be attributed to robust testing.

With a race against further spread, including the more contagious U.K. variant, Department of Health Services officials were hopeful as they reported Thursday the state was set to receive 115,000 weekly vaccine doses for the next three weeks from the federal government. It's an increase from 90,000 doses although still not enough to meet the demand of statewide vaccinators.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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