Governor's Race Influences Budget 

Joint Finance Democrats raise issues that could be used against Walker

By Steven Walters, Urban Milwaukee News 

With their party adrift at both the state and national levels, the four Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) are trying to tease out issues that may – or may not – work against Republican Gov. Scott Walker in next year’s election.

Because Republicans handily control both houses of the Legislature, there are 12 of them and four Democrats on JFC. Within weeks, the committee will forward a proposed 2017-19 budget to the full Legislature. If it’s not amended, separate Assembly and Senate votes could put that budget on Walker’s desk.

JFC’s four Democrats come from different regions of Wisconsin: Sen. Lena Taylor, of Milwaukee; Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of the Madison suburb of Middleton; Rep. Gordon Hintz, of Oshkosh, and Rep. Katrina Shankland, of Stevens Point.

Oshkosh, part of the Fox Valley, and Stevens Point are make-or-break areas for Democrats. Four years ago, three Democrats and one Republican represented the Stevens Point-area; Shankland is now the only Democrat.

With the Capitol focused on JFC, its Democrats have a chance to offer proposals they know won’t pass, but still lay down political markers for whoever will be the party’s nominee against Walker of what will – and won’t – work as campaign themes.

More than 10 Democrats have said they won’t run against Walker; five or six others are considering running. Whoever the candidate is, he or she has the luxury of embracing or abandoning the changes being floated by JFC’s Democrats.

JFC has not yet acted on several budget issues – K-12 and transportation funding, and tax reform – but its Democrats have already backed a $10 minimum wage, and shown what else the 12 Republicans oppose, on some major issues:

*Free technical college tuition: Democrats said the state’s 16 technical colleges, more than ever, offer a chance to train workers for future jobs. And, Democrats add, technical colleges are more nimble and affordable than the UW System’s four-year campuses.

But, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB), the non-partisan budget office, making all technical colleges tuition-free would cost about $555 million over the next two years. That’s cash state government does not have, Republicans said.

*Free tuition at two-year UW colleges: Democrats said the two-year campuses offer students a chance to learn whether they like and can succeed in college, while commuting from home and families. Because students at two-year colleges come from middle-class families, they deserve financial breaks, Democrats added.

But, according to LFB, making the two-year colleges tuition free would cost about $82 million over the next two years.

Republican Rep. John Nygren, a JFC cochair, dismissed the Democrats’ proposals. “Free college? News flash for you: Bernie Sanders lost. We don’t just get things for free in this country. We work for them.”

*Student debt: Democrats tried to attach to the budget the creation of a state agency to help students refinance their loans, saying Wisconsin residents are deeper in debt than most others nationally. Loan payments keep Wisconsin residents from buying cars and homes, Democrats added.

Republican Rep. Mary Felzkowski rejected that request, suggesting that students and their parents make better financial decisions to avoid going that deep in debt.

*High-capacity wells: Led by Shankland, Democrats fought the bill Walker signed into law last week that will allow 13,178 high-capacity wells – most of which are in the Central Sands region in and around Stevens Point – to be sold, replaced and repaired without a new permit from the Department of Natural Resources. Vegetable and potato growers pushed for that new law.

A former JFC cochair, Democratic Sen. Mark Miller, offered his party’s next candidate for governor a reason to use that against Walker.

“Gov. Walker finishes what legislative Republican started,” Miller said. “He privatized the waters of Wisconsin. Senate Bill 76 gives high capacity well owners a permit forever.”

There is one issue – transportation funding – where Democrats have been so far silent. The state transportation fund is hundreds of millions of dollars short of being able to keep current projects on schedule, but Walker has vowed to veto any tax or fee increase and wants to borrow $500 million to keep some major projects on track.

When JFC takes up transportation funding, the four Democrats will have to lead, follow or get out of Republicans’ way.