MADISON — The two-year state budget passed on a partisan 12-4 vote by the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee will be taken up by the Wisconsin Assembly in two weeks, then the state Senate.
After both houses pass the plan, it then goes to Gov. Scott Walker, who can sign it, veto all of it, or veto any items he opposes. The legislature has the option to override Walker’s vetoes, or those items could be removed from the budget.
Walker worked closely with lawmakers on the plan and got the vast majority of what he wanted, but some vetoes are still expected. Republican legislative leaders say they don’t anticipate making any changes during Senate and Assembly debate.
Income tax cut
Income taxes would be cut by about $650 million over the next two years, rates in all brackets would be cut, and the number of brackets would shrink from five to four. The lowest rate would drop from 4.6 percent to 4.4 percent while the top rate would go from 7.75 percent to 7.65 percent. The third and fourth brackets would be compressed, meaning anyone who earns between $28,650 and $315,460 would receive a 6.27 percent tax cut.
The private school voucher program, currently offered only in Racine and Milwaukee, would extend statewide. Vouchers allow public school students to attend private and religious schools using a taxpayer-funded subsidy.
Enrollment outside of Milwaukee and Racine would be capped at just 500 students next school year and 1,000 for every year after that. With 422 new school districts joining the program, on average fewer than three students in each could join the program.
The compromise angered supporters and critics of the program. Those who support vouchers say the enrollment caps — including not allowing any more than 1 percent of a total district’s enrollment to be on vouchers — were too restrictive. Opponents say those caps can be easily lifted, made all the easier if the program is offered statewide.
Public school funding
Spending in public schools would increase $150 per pupil in each of the next two years. Walker had proposed no increase, and Democrats called for $275 per student. The increase comes after an $800 million cut in per-pupil spending in Walker’s last budget.
State aid to schools would increase by about 1 percent.
Wisconsin would reject a federally funded expansion of Medicaid, as Walker wanted, despite calls from numerous health care advocacy groups to take the money and cover about 85,000 more adults in the program.
Had Walker accepted the federally funded expansion, people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 for a single person, would have been covered under the state’s BadgerCare Medicaid program. Walker would only cover adults up to 100 percent of poverty, or about $11,500 a year.
Currently, BadgerCare covers people earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or $22,980, but there is a cap on enrollment for single adults. The budget would lift that cap for those at or below poverty level.
University of Wisconsin
Tuition would be frozen for the next two years at the University of Wisconsin System, a move agreed after the system reported it had about $650 million in reserves at the end of the last fiscal year. The budget would also eliminate a proposed spending increase of $181 million for the UW System and cut it an additional $2.5 million. That comes on top of a $315 million cut that the UW System sustained in the previous two-year budget.
Public land sale
An array of state properties, including prisons, university dormitories, power plants and highways, could be sold to private buyers without going through a public bidding process. However no sale could go through without approval of the Joint Finance Committee, and state-owned property funded with at least 50 percent federal funds or gifts or grants could not be sold.
Property can be sold without seeking competitive bids, following an undefined “competitive and transparent process.”
Anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony or a host of sex-related misdemeanors would be required to submit their DNA to law enforcement. Anyone convicted of any crime would also have to provide their DNA. That is an expansion from current law, which requires DNA samples only from convicted felons and sex offenders. People who have their convictions reversed, set aside or vacated could request that their DNA profiles be removed from the state’s database. An estimated 68,000 additional DNA samples would be collected a year under the change.
The Department of Natural Resources’ land stewardship program would be decreased by $12.5 million next year, under a scaling back of how much money can be borrowed to acquire and develop land. The budget provision, which Walker opposes, also requires the DNR to sell off thousands of acres of land purchased for conservation.
Public safety workers in Wisconsin couldn’t be required to live any closer than within 15 miles of the city or county where they serve, a change that would most dramatically affect Milwaukee. All city and school district employees must live in Milwaukee, and similar but generally less restrictive requirements are in place in more than 100 other Wisconsin cities.
Under the change, no local government could place any residency restrictions on public workers. However, police, fire and emergency workers would have to live within 15 miles of the city or seat of government where they work.
Unemployed people would have to conduct four work searches a week, instead of the current two, under one of several changes affecting unemployment benefits.
Benefits paid to unemployed people in Wisconsin would also be more difficult to receive, thereby saving the state $37 million over the next two years. Changes include new, tougher regarding voluntary termination of work, misconduct and substantial fault, and searching for work.
Able-bodied adults on Wisconsin’s food stamps program would have to spend at least 20 hours a week working or getting trained for a job. Those who don’t meet the work requirement would be limited to three months of benefits over three years. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that half of the childless, able-bodied adults on the program between the ages of 18 and 50 who would be subject to the work requirement would not meet it. That is 31,300 out of 62,700.
The state treasurer would have no duties other than to serve as the chairman of a three-member commission that manages trust fund lands. The budget would remove the unclaimed property division from the treasurer’s office. Eliminating the office itself would require changing the state constitution, a move that would take at least two years and a vote of the people.
No Wisconsin city or county could prohibit the sale of large, sugary drinks or restrict the sale of any food or drink based on the number of calories, portion size or other nutritional criteria. Republican backers said they feared bans like one recently enacted in New York City on drink sizes could make their way to Wisconsin.
Removed from the budget
Several of Walker’s proposals were removed from the budget, including a provision exempting rent-to-own companies from the state’s consumer protection laws, creating a new voucher for special needs students, creating a new statewide board to approve others who authorize charter schools, creating a solicitor general’s office in the state Department of Justice and turning control of the Circus World Museum over to the state.