May 20, 2015

Republicans prioritize drug testing and prison funding over education

By Sen. Lena Taylor

The end of the biennial state budget process is a bit like a roller coaster ride. Except, on this roller coaster ride, Republicans are in charge and it feels like the roller coaster could jump off the tracks at any moment.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the honor and responsibility of serving on the state budget committee several times. And every single time, there is one night that you will never forget. For me, that night was last Tuesday. In one day, Republicans created a pipeline to prison instead of a pathway to the American Dream for our school children.

Last Tuesday, Republicans yet again under funded public education, voted to increase the number of beds for male and female inmates to accommodate Wisconsin’s growing prison population and approved multiple likely illegal provisions to require drug testing for state aid. 

We all knew something was up when the committee started four hours late. When the Republicans are locked behind closed doors for hours, you really know they’re up to something. After we finally started, Republicans passed mandatory drug testing for recipients of public benefits such as food stamps, unemployment insurance, job training programs and BadgerCare Plus. These programs are discriminatory, prejudiced and likely illegal. Yet, logic like that won’t stop Republican press release politics. Not one Republican on the committee seemed at all worried about the money lawsuits from these likely illegal tests would cost. Democrats, on the other hand, would like to see the money invested into treatment services for people who actually have AODA issues. 

As if they hadn’t wasted enough money already, Republicans approved an increase in beds for male and female inmates. Yet, they eliminated dedicated funding for Project Return in Milwaukee. Project Return helps men and women reintegrate into our society in a positive and permanent way. Rather than continuing the revolving door of incarceration, Project Return helps provide people the stability and services to stay out of prison for good. Programs like these show lower recidivism rates which saves us money and strengthens our community in the long run.

Imagine sitting through hours of debate in which Republicans waste taxpayer funds hand over fist. Just when you thought this roller coaster ride couldn’t get any bumpier, Republicans introduced one of the largest budget motions I recall seeing in my career. The Republican education plan took a page right out of Governor Walker’s playbook. The move marginally increased funding for public schools, for which Republicans took a victory lap. Despite this move, our public education funding continues to be lower than under former Governor Jim Doyle.

Yet, the story they don’t want you to read is about the poison pills in the Republican education package. For example, did you know that Republicans are spending tens of millions of dollars on vouchers for special needs students? That’s money diverted from public schools and allows parents to send their children to schools that may not actually be equipped to accommodate special needs students.

Another major education policy change would allow the Milwaukee County Executive to take over failing schools in the Milwaukee Public School System. At first, the number of schools would be minimal, but would grow each and every year. I believe that schools that have more challenges need more resources, not less. So shouldn’t we identify struggling schools and help them by reducing class size and creating wrap-around services so our neighborhood schools can be a place for families and communities to grow stronger together? If you agree, you aren’t alone. Instead, Republicans hatched a plan without incorporating proper feedback from key stakeholders. In doing so, they created a divisive toxic plan, rather than one that will truly work for our children by earning the buy-in of our students, parents and neighbors.

Buckle your seatbelt and hold on tight. The state budget committee roller coaster ride still has at least another week or two left. And with Governor Walker and the Republicans in charge, anything can happen.