By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
PLEASANT PRAIRIE – Surrounded by more than 50 supporters, including children and war veterans, Gov. Scott Walker on Sunday signed Wisconsin’s $70.1 billion, 2013-2015 budget into law.
The Republican governor, put the executive pen to a Republican-led budget, signing the biennial spending plan beneath a banner that declared, “Working for Wisconsin.”
Walker, appearing at Catalyst Exhibits Inc., a trade show booth design and marketing company that relocated to the state from Illinois in 2011, said that while the media would focus on his vetoes, the “real story is this is a budget built for the hard-working taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin.”
Still, the final budget, which goes into effect on Monday with the start of the fiscal year, bears 57 incisions from Walker’s veto pen. The budget two years ago was marked by 50 partial vetoes.
The governor pointed to the budget’s “$1 billion in tax relief for individuals and small business owners. He also noted the budget holds property tax increases to 1 percent and provides $322 million more for public schools, $100 million for workforce development programs and $6.4 billion in transportation spending.
“We invest in jobs that help build and maintain infrastructure,” Walker said, noting upgrades to the roads, bridges and airports that move people and goods through the state and into national and international markets, including $486 million to keep the Zoo Interchange project on time.
More significant, the governor said, the budget continues to reform state government, altering the state’s Medicaid, unemployment insurance and food stamp programs – a point not lost on his detractors, who accuse Walker of being more focused on presidential aspirations than helping the state he serves.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, in a statement said the budget “includes what may be the worst decision made in our state in a generation – a health care plan that covers 85,000 fewer people and costs taxpayers an additional $120 million.”
One of the hallmarks of Walker’s budget is the rejection of $4 billion-plus federal dollars to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls. The federal government has offered to pay 90 percent of the state’s cost to expand Medicaid after fully funding the increase for the first three years.
Walker, though, insists the federal government won’t keep that promise and that in the long run, the costs will devastate state finances. Even with rejecting the federal cash, Walker’s budget spends more than $750 million in new General Program Revenue for medical assistance programs and will cover all Wisconsinites living below the federal poverty level – about $11,500 for a single person.
He says it’s part of his initiative to wean people off “government dependence to true independence.”
“We enact major unemployment reform with a focus on getting people back into the workforce,” Walker said.
The budget also alters the FoodShare program, requiring able-bodied adults without dependents need to work or be enrolled in a work training program to receive food stamps.
The governor used his partial veto power 57 times in this budget, including striking two provisions that garnered significant criticism – the introduction of bail bondsmen to the Wisconsin court system and a measure from Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee that would have banned the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from continuing to use state facilities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Walker also vetoed a section of the budget that would require the Department of Public Instruction to release all school choice data at the same time, rather than on a selective basis.
In his veto message the governor said, “I object to the selective release of portions of student information, which erodes the goals of consistency and transparency related to data surrounding parental choice programs.”
One of the controversial cornerstones of the budget is the statewide expansion of the school voucher program. He vetoed a provision that requires DPI to approve a third-party accreditation status for private schools participating in the program. Walker said DPI doesn’t have the authority to issue that approval.
The governor also vetoed language that might have allowed more than 500 students next year and 1,000 the following year to enroll in the expanded program. Those caps were worked out in a deal made between Walker and moderate Republicans reluctant to support the budget with his initial proposal that tied voucher expansion to performance on the statewide report card system.
Other vetoes include a proposed surcharge on state employees that use tobacco, a provision which the governor said is now out of line with federal restrictions. And Walker removed a requirement that municipalities larger than 5,000 use OpenBook, a system to make government expenditures available for searching on the Internet. Walker said the proposal was an “unfunded mandate” and a “huge undertaking” for municipalities.
The partial vetoes weren’t nearly enough to satisfy angry Democrats, who had relatively little to do with the final budget product. Barca blasted the Republican budget as one of the “primary reasons Wisconsin is 38th in the nation in job growth – and at or near the bottom by any objective economic measure – since Gov. Walker took office.”
“Not only does this budget fail to reverse that damage, it actually doubles down on an economic agenda that has devastated Wisconsin over the past two and a half years,” Barca said.
A dozen or so demonstrators gathered outside Catalyst Exhibits to protest the budget signing. Their complaints ranged from wanting more money for public education and less money in the school choice program to budget’s jump in borrowing.
It wasn’t the kind of strength in numbers that battled the last biennial budget, when controversial reforms gutted collective bargaining for most public employees in the state. But there were the usual chants and signs, replete with colorful language.
Catalyst was a fitting site for the budget-signing ceremony; the company is an active example of the governor’s Working for Wisconsin theme. Catalyst left tax-heavy Illinois for the greener economic development pastures of Wisconsin in 2011, bringing more than 100 jobs and millions of dollars in investment to the Badger State.
Catalyst Exhibits received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant from the now-defunct state Department of Commerce as well as a $1.25 million low-cost loan from the Kenosha Area Business Alliance.
And Catalyst has been a strong supporter of the governor.
CEO Paul Stahlberg contributed $20,000 to Walker leading up to last year’s recall election. Catalyst President Tim Roberts also contributed $20,000 to Walker’s recall campaign.
Roberts introduced Walker and said the company has invested $4 million since moving to Wisconsin, while growing the business 35 percent and increasing employment.
In a statement, Walker noted the state’s significantly improved fiscal state since 2011, when, in the aftermath of the most severe recessions in decades, Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
“This budget is a sharp contrast from where we were two years ago,” the governor said. “Our structural reforms, coupled with tough, but prudent, decisions, have led to a great investment in the people of Wisconsin.”
“We focused on making life better for the residents of our state, and this budget builds upon a solid foundation for the future,” he added.
Contact Ekvall at [email protected]