MADISON, Wis. – So much for going big and bold.
The Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee this week said it will pull out 83 “non-fiscal” policies from Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 budget. More so, the Committee on Joint Finance would start fresh on the controversial transportation budget – in what ultimately could force a budget showdown between the Republican-controlled Assembly and the governor.
Of the myriad proposals tucked inside Walker’s $76 billion biennial budget plan, several are warmly endorsed by fiscal conservatives who have led the charge on limited-government legislation.
Gone is the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, requiring any administrative rule with a compliance cost exceeding $10 million to be reviewed by the Legislature.
So is prevailing wage repeal.
Welfare reform remains, but the proposal is watered down.
What’s left is Walker’s plan to pump $649 million more into K-12 education, the cornerstone piece of the budget that has given fiscal hawks fits.
“What we’re left with is a large increase in spending (mostly on K-12 education), a few decent tax cuts, and an indication from finance committee leadership that they will increase spending on transportation,” said Eric Bott, state director for Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin. The nonpartisan, free-market advocacy group has been highly critical of the big-ticket spending items coming from lawmakers who claim to have the best interest of taxpayers in mind.
Wisconsin road builders and their powerful lobby are feeling a little more relief knowing what just about every budget watcher expected: Their friends in the Assembly would keep gas tax and vehicle fee hikes on the table.
Walker has adamantly rejected a gas tax increase to fill an estimated $1 billion shortfall at the state Department of Transportation, particularly for an agency shown to have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on bad planning and building practices.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has threatened to call an override vote should the governor pull out his veto pen. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau has said he’s not on board with such intraparty wars.
Walker and Vos have of late been sniping at each other in a very public feud that has titillated the left and the usual suspect press.
“As I said in my SOTS (State of the State) & Budget addresses, & plenty of times since, with a Reform Dividend now is not the time to raise taxes on Wisconsinites,” Walker tweeted last week.
Texting between the two GOP Alpha dogs has been even more caustic, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gleefully reported on Friday.
“As I recall, the debate started with the unprecedented discussion of starting with a new budget & the continued attacks on transportation. It would be odd if I didn’t defend my positions,” Walker wrote to Vos in text exchanges obtained by the newspaper through the state’s open records law.
“I think it actually started with the decision of your office to not really involve us before the process began unlike each of your other budgets. I found that’s strange but I respected that’s how you wanted to do it. So without giving us ownership of any thing in your budget it’s kind of hard for us just a rubber stamp it,” Vos responded.
“Unlike the last budget where we met with nearly every member in advance & got trashed,” Walker snapped back (Jason Stein’s and Patrick Marley’s turn of phrase).
In a statement this week, Walker thanked the budget-writing committee for “keeping the historic K-12 funding levels in place.” He did not note the transportation feud.
Several conservative lawmakers opted not to comment on the latest twist in the budget battle, but sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog they are worried that Republicans are squandering a golden opportunity to reform and limit government. All the bickering, they say, is an unneeded distraction.
After the November election, GOP leadership declared the party would go big and bold this legislative session, thanks to an Assembly majority not seen since the Eisenhower administration and a very comfortable Republican majority in the Senate.
Sen. Alberta Darling, said she refuses to be distracted from the business at hand, and she believes her Republican colleagues feel the same way.
“They don’t want to get into this personality battle,” the River Hills Republican said, calling such squabbles a “no-win” situation for those who want to get things done. “Gov. Walker is our governor, he’s been a good friend to us.”
Darling, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, said it’s important for the sake of transparency and for committee involvement to take non-fiscal proposals out of the budget. Let them stand on their own in and up or down vote, she said. And many of the proposals have been separately introduced as legislation, Darling noted.
Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, voiced his disappointment that the full prevailing wage repeal proposal was removed as a non-fiscal item. Stroebel said removing such artificial, government-mandated wages is all about saving taxpayers money.
“The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance evaluation determined the repeal would save Wisconsin taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” Stroebel said in a statement. “When budgeting, our priority should always be to pass policy reforms that save money through efficiencies. Prevailing wage does that.”
While legislative leadership may negotiate many of the reform proposals back into the budget, what will conservatives have to give up in order to get them? The battle, budget watchers say, promises to be long and hard.
“Regardless of what happens during the forthcoming negotiations, today’s actions are a slap against Governor Walker, the conservative grassroots who put these legislators into office, and sound public policy,” Bott said. “Without significant improvement, it will be difficult for true conservatives to vote for this budget come June or July.”