Walker pushes flat school funding, rural education aids, small property tax cuts in $68 billion budget plan
By Ben Meyer
MADISON - Gov. Scott Walker believes he can restore the American Dream in Wisconsin.
He has a catchy name for his plan, too.
But critics believe branding his budget proposal "Freedom and Prosperity" won't do much to help people in the state.
Walker's $68 billion budget plan is only a starting point for legislators, who will review and amend the budget between now and summer.
On Tuesday night, the governor presented his proposal in a speech that took fewer than 30 minutes.
Walker needed to fill a $2.2 billion gap between what state agencies wanted to spend between mid-2015 and mid-2017 and what the state is projected to take in during that time.
Many people in northern Wisconsin were listening to what his budget proposal would do for public schools.
"Our budget will increase state support for schools by providing $100 million annually for the school levy tax credit, and more than $100 million in the second year of the budget for equalization aids," Walker announced.
The school levy tax credit has been claimed as a school aid by both parties in the past, but it doesn't actually help school budgets.
"It really is about providing more property tax relief to property taxpayers," said Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) after the speech. "It doesn't go to help cover the cost of public schools at all,"
The same appears to be true for Walker's proposal on equalization aids.
Sending more state money to schools without increasing revenue limits, as Walker proposes, means districts simply have slightly more money coming from the state and slightly less from property taxes, which only serves to keep district budgets near current levels.
Walker touted that property tax cut.
"Just as I promised, property taxes by the end of 2016 will be lower than they were in 2014. That means lower property tax bills for six years in a row," he said. "How about that?"
The cut, if approved, will be modest, amounting to $10 over two years for an average Wisconsin homeowner.
"I'm really concerned about the governor's tax proposal because we haven't seen how he's going to pay for it yet," said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). Shankland also worries that Walker's tax plans have disproportionately benefited the rich. "I think we need to make sure whatever he's doing, it shouldn't be giveaways to the wealthiest."
For rural schools, the governor wants to pour $19 million into transportation and other costs.
One Northwoods lawmaker received special recognition from Walker for his work on the matter.
"Thanks to Rep. Rob Swearingen and the other members of the Speaker's Task Force on Rural Schools for their leadership on this important issue," Walker said.
"Yeah, pretty cool stuff," Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) admitted after the speech. "I'm pretty excited to make an impact on rural schools."
But in an interview before the address, at least one Democrat wasn't impressed.
"Nineteen million (dollars) won't even come close to what we've been cut," said Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield), referring to the more than $1 billion Walker cut from public schools in his first budget in 2011.
"You can argue that (funding like the $19 million Walker proposes is) never enough," Swearingen said. "Some of these schools are truly, truly struggling, hurting financially, and the referendums are what are tearing these communities apart. This should help. We've got a starting point here."
Walker also wants to force adults to look for work and pass drug tests to get government help, calling state aid a temporary safety net, not a hammock.
"I don't think the governor is thinking about a hammock," Shankland said. "I think he's taking away the ladder of opportunity from people who need it."
But on a night of catchy phrases, Walker would call his plan something closer to "Freedom and Prosperity."