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Capital City Sunday: Evers signs budget; GOP accuses him of stealing credit for tax cuts

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As expected, Gov. Tony Evers this weeks signed the $87.5 billion two-year budget presented to him by the Republican-controlled legislature.

An outright veto was already extremely unlikely but the chances of complete rejection from Evers became even more remote once seven legislative Democrats also voted for the budget - a spending plan defined by tax cuts following an unprecedent surge in projected tax revenue.

The budget Evers signed Thursday includes more than $3 billion in tax cuts, the majority of which come in a reduction in the state's income tax rate for people making between $24,000 and $263,000 a year.

Evers said at the press event where he signed the budget that he never seriously considered a full veto because doing so would've jeopardized the more than $2 billion in federal pandemic relief Wisconsin schools are set to receive.

Evers touted the tax cuts as a feature of the budget even though he downplayed them as a priority once the state's surplus came to light. At the time, Evers said it was more important lawmakers figure out the school funding plan in order to meet federal requirements - something that was in question following Joint Finance Republicans' initial passage of an education spending plan.

"The budget alone provides $2 billion in individual income tax relief over the biennium and approximately $1 billion annually going forward," Evers said,

Republicans said the governor was being dishonest for touting the tax cuts since it was GOP leaders who put the cuts into their re-write of Evers's budget; they also noted Evers never publicly pushed for sweeping cuts.

"This is the way he's been with two budgets now," said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam). "This is history. He introduces budgets that raise taxes, we send him back budgets that cut taxes since we know that's best."

Republicans also drew a contrast between their budget to the executive budget Evers put forth in February; that budget includes about $1 billion in new taxes, largely coming from a cap Evers proposed on how much large manufacturers could claim in tax credits.

The state did not know at that time it was projected to be sitting on more than $4 billion in excess tax collections.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said Evers had every right to take credit for the cuts since he ultimately turned the bill into law.

"Some of those Republicans might need to go back and watch 'Schoolhouse Rock' because a bill doesn't become a law unless it's signed by the governor," Roys said. "I think the governor can absolutely take credit for things in the budget."

Push for More Police Hiring

 Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said this week Gov. Tony Evers should use nearly a quarter of the state's federal pandemic aid to hire more police officers.

Sanfelippo, whose district is in the western Milwaukee suburbs, said he wanted Evers to distribute $500 million to Wisconsin's largest cities for the purposes of beefing up their police rosters; the state is set to receive about $2.5 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The GOP lawmaker's call comes as Madison police officials note recent increases in some areas of crime, including sharp increases last year in shots fired incidents and stolen car reports.

In 2020, Milwaukee set a new record for homicides in a year; so far this year, homicides in the state's biggest city are ahead of the 2020 pace, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's tracker.

"I think the responsibility lies primarily with local elected officials who have all been on this 'defund the police' movement," Sanfelippo said. "They're not putting in and dedicating the proper resources that are required in order to keep the public safe."

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said if Republicans are concerned about police staffing, they have only themselves to blame because they've refused to increase shared revenue, the money the state distributes to counties and cities.

"When we're talking about cuts to essential local services, whether it's police or fire or garbage collection or road maintenance, it's the Republicans who are really to blame for creating that scarcity," Roys said.

Sanfelippo countered that with the money local governments are getting themselves through three rounds of federal pandemic relief, they should have enough of a boost to hire more officers.

"To come back and say 'we just don't have the money to do it,' to me, is really not an option," Sanfelippo said. "So that's why I'm calling on the governor to help this cities out with some extra funding."

Roys said any major investments in public safety should go beyond just police hiring, pointing to neighboring Minnesota as an example of a state that jails fewer people and still has less violent crime. 2018 FBI data corroborated Roys's example.

Framing School Funding

First it was GOP lawmakers after the legislature passed the budget, then the state Democratic Party after Evers signed it into law; according to a number of school administrators across the state, however, framing the return to state government covering two-thirds of education costs is misleading.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Rory Linnane joined Capital City Sunday to discuss her conversations with school leaders and their frustration with framing this budget as one that gives schools as massive boost in funding.

One the two-thirds funding front, the issue is there was no corresponding increase to the cap on how much districts can charge residents in property taxes. That cap moves in tandem with state education funding, so when the state increased how much of the cost it pays, the property tax limit went down.

"Some district leaders were frustrated by how that can come off as sounding misleading where it sounds like they're getting more money from the state," Linnane said. "But because their revenue limits aren't going up, those dollars are going back to taxpayers as tax cuts and so the districts aren't actually seeing more money from that."

Republicans have defended not putting more of the surplus into education, citing the federal pandemic relief districts are receiving. While Milwaukee is getting a whopping $800 million and Madison Metropolitan is getting about $70 million, most of the state's districts are getting considerably less.

For a number of smaller districts, the concern is their pandemic aid will only be enough to cover safety improvements they made during the pandemic - like HVAC upgrades and extra cleaning. Administrators told Linnane the one-time federal dollars will not be enough to cover staffing costs, forcing them to possibly go to referendum and, if their taxpayers turn them down, make personnel cuts.

"With the short-term spending like that, you can't use it to, for example, pay for teachers," Linnane said. "Because then you have to lay off those teachers as soon as that amount runs out."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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