Guest Column from Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke: A Look at the State Budget: Investing in Education, Protecting our Vulnerable, and Expanding Tax Relief
The State Legislature has approved the 2015-2017 budget bill, and Governor Walker has signed it into law. Over the past several months, Assembly Republicans have greatly improved the originally proposed budget, making me proud to cast my vote in favor. This budget invests more money in our public schools, freezes tuition for in-state college students, preserves long-term care programs and holds the line on property taxes. It also includes large investments in our state’s workforce and takes steps to promote small business growth, and reduces the amount of transportation bonding.
Many of the changes made to the budget were prompted by concerned constituents. All throughout the budget process, Assembly Republicans actively sought the input of their districts. Besides the Joint Finance Committee’s four public hearings, Assembly Republicans held over 100 listening sessions of their own. Public input was also garnered through constituent surveys. Based on all of the feedback received, Wisconsinites should be pleased to see that the budget upholds many of our shared priorities: investing in public education, protecting services for our vulnerable populations and expanding tax relief.
Investing in our education system is an issue that I care deeply about. As the husband of a public school teacher and the father of three children, I see the struggles that our teachers and students face each day. I strongly believe that simply increasing spending isn’t the only solution for improving education, but sufficient funding does play a major role in keeping our schools strong. That’s why my colleagues and I fought to add an additional $200 million to fund our K-12 schools – that’s money above and beyond what was proposed by the Governor. Thanks to this additional investment, we restored funding of $150 per pupil in the first year of the biennium and increased funding by $100 per pupil in the second year.
Besides extra funding for our schools, the budget also contains education initiatives such as a teacher loan program and a minority teacher loan program that will help recruit quality teachers; rural school districts will be able to share grades without consolidation and take advantage of a new version of the TEACH program that provides digital learning tools. We also made progress in implementing a state accountability system by requiring the Department of Public Instruction to review and approve a summative assessment system for federal and state accountability purposes beginning this year.
Protecting services for our vulnerable populations is another top priority. The final budget preserves SeniorCare for our elderly population and expands and reforms Family Care and IRIS (Include, Respect, I Self-Direct). We also restored funding for child advocacy centers to help children who are victims of abuse; and we invested extra money for court appointed special advocates to work with young victims of abuse and provide them with the care and protection they need.
Finally, expanding tax relief is a key aspect of the budget. For many of us in the Legislature, one of the reasons we decided to run for public office was to make sure that the hard working people in our communities could keep more of the money they’ve earned. Since 2010, property taxes have gone down every year. I’m proud to say that this budget reduces property taxes yet again. It reduces the marriage penalty by increasing the standard deduction for married filers, improves Wisconsin's business climate by simplifying Wisconsin's tax code and reducing the state's compliance burden on individuals and businesses. There’s also a tax incentive program called “Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE)” that empowers the disabled community and their families to achieve greater independence and assists with various expenses.
The Legislature was tasked with a large responsibility to craft a budget that funds our state’s top priorities without asking taxpayers for more money, and that’s exactly what we did. While some of our decisions were difficult, I believe this budget without a doubt makes Wisconsin better for our students, our most vulnerable populations, and taxpayers.