MADISON, Wis. – Liberals and the mainstream media have called Republican Gov. Scott Walker a lot of things over his two and a half terms in office.
Now the Wisconsin left’s Public Enemy No. 1 is being described with a pejorative that no conservative could easily abide: Walker is suddenly a “liberal.”
Or at least his budget proposal is.
How low can the left go?
An Associated Press story last week, headlined “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposes surprisingly liberal budget,” noted the 2017-19 spending plan “includes a huge boost in funding for schools, sizable cuts for college students and increased tax breaks for the working poor.”
While budget hawks aren’t thrilled with some of the spending increases included in the $76.098 billion biennial budget, no one is about to confuse Walker with California left-winger Gov. Jerry Brown, or Walker’s liberal colleague to the more immediate west, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.
Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a Madison-based free-market think tank, said there’s a lot for conservatives to like in Walker’s budget proposal. Not the least of which is nearly $600 million in tax and fee relief, including the elimination of the state portion of the property tax levy.
“Think about it. When is the last time a politician proposed eliminating a tax? It just never happens,” Healy told Wisconsin Watchdog on Monday on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.
“The biggest concern when you are a conservative in the Legislature is, if you start a new tax or fee, it’s never going to go away,” Healy added. “Here we have a situation where Gov. Walker has actually stepped up and he proposes eliminating the forestry tax on everyone’s property tax bill. That’s huge.”
To accomplish this tax exorcism, Walker’s plan provides more than $180 million in fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19 to ensure continued state funding for forestry programs covered by local property taxpayers. The administration says the state forestry account in the conservation fund will be unaffected through this “tax relief action.”
“This tax, which had gone up each time a property’s value increased, will no longer be imposed on Wisconsin property owners,” states a Department of Administration budget analysis.
Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation, said Walker’s latest budget plan again sets the pace in limiting the size and scope of government.
The proposal calls for phasing out the prevailing wage mandate for state-funded construction projects. Prevailing wage, a Great Depression-era relic that artificially fixes wages based on trade and geographical location of the state, can substantially increase costs for government construction projects. Bott calls it “protectionism at its worst.” Unions and their Democratic allies fought ferociously to keep prevailing wage reform at bay in the last session. They failed. Walker wants to go deeper this time.
The budget also includes some of the strongest welfare reform initiatives in the nation.
Bott is especially excited about the inclusion of a state version of the REINS Act in the Walker budget plan. The REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) proposal would require state agencies to get legislative approval for any regulation with an economic impact at certain thresholds.
“If there is a compliance estimate above $10 million, then I’m very comfortable throwing a wrench into it, grinding it to a halt, and forcing the legislature to then approve it,” Neylon told Wisconsin Watchdog. “Because that is the best way to hold people accountable, to let their elected officials be the ones to decide on big spending items.”
Bott said Wisconsin would be among the first states to adopt a REINS Act. There is similar legislation pending in Congress.
Healy said that behind the scenes MacIver is hearing from budget hawks concerned about the spending increases, particularly the nearly $650 million marked for K-12 public education.
“I think going forward that will certainly be something the Legislature looks at, if they want to dial back spending in certain areas,” he said. “That certainly would make this strong budget even stronger.”
To Walker’s credit, Bott said, the governor “isn’t just throwing money at problems.” He’s specifically delineating dollars for priorities. That includes approximately $55 million for rural schools districts, $25 million in local transportation aid, and funding for STEM education that works hand-in-hand with Walker’s expectation that the University of Wisconsin System better-prepare students for the demands of the new economy.
“If you’re part of the government and you want to be part of the solution, great. He’s going to provide the resources,” Bott said on the Vicki McKenna Show. Those that don’t want to be part of the solution, such as the Madison Metropolitan School District and its open rebellion against implementing state collective bargaining reforms, will lose out on the increased spending.
Some of the biggest budget battles are coming from inside the GOP. Walker has made it clear that he is not interested in tax increases, or “revenue enhancers” as some like to call them. That means no to a gas tax increase and vehicle registration fee hikes. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his leadership lieutenants in the Assembly have pushed gas tax and fee increases as potential solutions to transportation budget shortfalls. It is, at least for now, a rhetorical line in the sand.
Healy said that line is subject to change, and he predicts Vos will end up on the other side of it.
“Right now you have to bet that Gov. Walker is going to win that battle,” he said. “(Senate Majority Leader Scott) Fitzgerald is on his side. When you have two of the three players in the Capitol on one side of the argument, generally they win out.”
The rhetoric so far has been pitched, with supporters of “revenue enhancers” attacking Walker’s budget for transportation borrowing and for not offering sustainable funding to keep several Wisconsin highway projects moving forward.
Bott notes that Walker has proposed $6.1 billion for the Department of Transportation, with the highest level of transportation general aids ever. While he agrees that there is too much borrowing in the transportation budget, Bott noted that bonding for highway construction is down 41 percent, the lowest level since the 2001-03 budget.
And a recent audit found waste and incompetence in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to be incredibly costly to taxpayers. A total of 363 DOT contracts between 2006 and 2015 – about 16 percent of the total – received only one bid each, according to the review. That accounts for $1.1 billion in projects.
“And we know that when there’s no competition, it drives up the price dramatically,” Bott said.
Despite its spending increases, Bott said the Walker budget plan could be a “model budget” for the nation.
“The governor has laid out a vision with conservative victories,” Healy said. “Hopefully the Legislature, instead of being bogged down in gas tax and registration fee increases, can make some improvements to the governor’s budget and we can have this thing done in June.”