Wisconsin Budget Committee Resumes Work After Two-Month Delay

By Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times

After a hiatus spanning more than two months, the Legislature's budget committee returned on Thursday to resume work on the state's biennial spending plan. But the heavy lifting of transportation and education funding is still to come.

The Joint Finance Committee's Republican leaders said they hope to complete their work on the document by Sept. 5, sending it to the state Assembly first the following week. The Senate plans to vote on a $3 billion tax incentive package for Foxconn while the Assembly considers the budget, and then vote to send the budget to Gov. Scott Walker.

The committee is scheduled to vote on K-12 schools funding on Monday, but co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, were tight-lipped on details of what will be included.

Some school districts throughout the state have complained that they are starting a new academic year without knowing what their state funding stream will look like, with some even starting the year with substitute teachers. The new fiscal year began on July 1, but the state will continue to operate under the previous budget's funding levels until a new one is passed.

"I think one of the biggest downsides of our taking this long was the fact that the schools could not go ahead and fill those positions," Darling said, adding that she's heard concerns from superintendents in her district.

Democrats on the committee said school districts are suffering from a budget that's nearly eight weeks overdue. Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, said at least one school district in the area she represents is starting the year with substitute teachers.

"We wanted to start with K-12 education and transportation at the beginning of this process to avoid something like this," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.

But Nygren said he doesn't think the situation is as dire as schools and lawmakers have made it out to be. When Assembly Republicans proposed changes to the governor's K-12 budget that would allow low-spending districts to increase their revenue limits, he said, the changes were met with opposition by schools that said they were counting on what the governor had proposed.

He accused schools and Democrats of trying to "have it both ways" by claiming now they don't know how much money they can count on.

"I think that's all a bunch of smoke and mirrors, quite honestly," he said.

Neither Darling nor Nygren would elaborate on what will be included in the transportation budget, but echoed Walker's comments earlier this week that the Senate, Assembly and governor have reached a deal "in principle."

"Until it’s a done deal, it’s not a done deal," Nygren said. "I would say it’s close but none of us are going to say it’s completely finished as of today."

The transportation budget has been the biggest source of strife in the budget process. Assembly Republicans are resistant to allowing bonding without a corresponding revenue increase, while Senate Republicans have argued for more borrowing than what Walker's budget originally proposed.

Walker reiterated earlier this week that the budget will not include a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase. However, he said, it could include a fee for hybrid and electric cars. 

Walker's budget included a $200 million income tax cut, at least a portion of which will likely be used to partially eliminate the state's personal property tax, Darling said.

The tax applies, in general, to furniture, equipment, machinery and watercraft owned by businesses.

Both Darling and Nygren said the two-month budget delay has been frustrating, but Darling said the finished product will be "a really good budget."

"We’d rather take our time and do it right than rush the process and make mistakes," Nygren said.