Rural and cash-strapped schools in Wisconsin would see more money under bill

By Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - Schools in rural areas would get nearly $7 million more and some other cash-strapped districts would be able to raise property taxes, under legislation advanced by the Legislature's budget committee Thursday.  

Lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee unanimously approved the bill as the panel rushes to wrap up its work for the two-year session. 

Senate Bill 690 would provide $6.5 million more for schools in rural communities with few residents and an estimated $15.6 million more for districts in the state with the tightest budgets. 

"This investment in our schools is long overdue," said Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairwoman of the budget committee. 

The bill is backed by both Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Republicans, giving it a strong chance of becoming law. But with some Senate Republicans still undecided on the legislation, there's still a chance it could fail to pass in the final weeks of the session. 

In the state budget last year, Walker proposed helping the thinly populated districts. Assembly GOP leaders moved instead to help schools that have been locked into tight budgets by state law, only to see the governor veto that provision and leave schools without either proposal. 

Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), the panel's co-chairman, said Thursday the bill was a start, even though state officials would need to do more to help schools keep operating in rural areas facing smaller and smaller populations. 

"It's going to make a difference for the kids," he said.

Democrats voted for the plan but said Republicans should have passed a larger package of aid and should have passed it last year instead of waiting.

“This should have been our number one priority," said Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).

Under the bill, state aid for thinly populated districts will increase to $400 a pupil from the current level of $300.

The package would also provide more money for school districts that spend the least on their students. 

Starting in 1993, state law limited how much districts could raise in property taxes and state aid per student, but districts were locked in at different rates depending on what they were spending at the time. Leaders of the most frugal districts said they have been punished for years with lower revenue limits because they were spending less a quarter-century ago.

Currently, the minimum that state school districts can raise through state aid and local property taxes is $9,100 a year per student. 

The bill would allow school boards in low-revenue districts to raise at least $9,400 per student in the 2018-'19 school year.

The proposal could lead to higher property taxes in those school districts, so the plan includes a provision to placate conservatives concerned about rising taxes. If voters in a district have rejected a referendum to increase taxes within the past three years, that district would not be able to raise taxes under the plan without a new referendum. 

On a 12-4 party-line vote with all Republicans in favor, the budget panel also approved Special Session Assembly Bill 5, which would allow low-income workers to collect Earned Income Tax Credit money on a monthly rather than a yearly basis. To become permanent, the pilot proposal would require approval from the federal Internal Revenue Service in addition to state lawmakers.

The committee also approved Special Session Assembly Bill 7, which would create an up to $20 million fund to pay private contractors doing welfare, corrections and training contracts. The state could use the money to pay vendors for reaching big cost savings or improvements in performance.