Walker tags new budget the 'Reform Dividend'; northern Democrats slam it as 'rainbows and unicorns'

By Ben Meyer, WJFW News

MADISON - Gov. Scott Walker calls his spending plan for the next two years the "Reform Dividend."

In Wednesday's biennial Budget Address, Walker pointed to reforms like Act 10 and tax cuts of the first six years of his administration.

He said those yielded a dividend; namely, that Wisconsin can spend a little more on things like education and social programs while continuing to cut taxes.

 "We're putting more money into public education than ever before, making college even more affordable, caring for the truly needy," Walker said before a joint session of the legislature Wednesday afternoon.

Walker wants to give $649 million in new funding to public schools through a six-year-old tool called categorical aids. That means aid would be distributed uniformly, whether a school district is relatively wealthy or relatively poor.

"The really good part for northern Wisconsin is that we're going to see more money go into categorical aids, so every student is going to get that money," said Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst). "I hope this does go into the classroom, and especially for our good teachers, that they are going to see more money into their paychecks."

Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield) sees the effects for northern Wisconsin differently.

"It is a lot of money. It doesn't target schools that need the money most," said Meyers.

Northern Wisconsin Democrats didn't mount a full attack on this session's budget plan.

"Absolutely, it's better than nothing," Meyers conceded.

However, they were quick to attack Walker's past moves.

"I think this is really an admission of his past failed budgets, which have cut and gut our most cherished institutions, like our public schools and like our universities," said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).

Those past budgets also included tax cuts. This one continues the pattern.

"Let me be clear. Now is not the time to raise taxes," Walker said. "We are getting rid of the state portion of your property tax bill. For the first time since 1931, there will be no state tax collected on your property tax bill."

Walker's plan, by 2018, would put both property and income taxes below 2010 levels.

"That sounds wonderful, doesn't it? I'm a property owner," Meyers said. "I'd love not to pay state taxes if it meant that all of the services were being met that the state needs."

But, Meyers added, she was skeptical that the state could continue providing the services it had promised to taxpayers.

Walker spent relatively little time addressing transportation funding. That area had perhaps gotten the most attention going into the budget proposals, as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall in funding.

Walker proposed slowing major projects in the Milwaukee area while increasing funding for local and county highway departments.

Democrats tagged Walker's budget plan as a pander to a possible reelection bid in 2018.

"This sounded a lot like a campaign speech," Meyers said. "A lot of rainbows and unicorns."

Walker's budget will now be reviewed and amended by the legislature's Joint Finance Committee in a months-long process.

Northcentral Wisconsin is well represented there, with Tiffany and Shankland sitting on the panel, along with Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma).