Governor Tony Evers is promising to continue to fight for his budget as Republicans in Madison on the Joint Finance Committee strip away funding for Evers’ priorities.
Evers submitted the budget March 7, addressing issues he campaigned on including Medicaid expansion and increased funding for K-12 schools. The Joint Finance Committee, Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee, began their first executive session on the 2019-21 biennial budget last week.
The committee voted to strip the proposed Medicaid expansion, among other provisions. The changes Republicans have made thus far will create a $1.4 billion hole in the budget, which is about the same amount Evers proposed boosting school funding for K-12 over two years. Governor Evers addressed the budget in an interview May 14.
According to Evers, the biennial budget he proposed would expand Medicaid above the federal poverty line to cover an additional 82,000 individuals, while drawing down new federal funds and saving taxpayers $324.5 million.
Wisconsin is the only state that has partially expanded Medicaid without accepting federal money, and one of only 13 states that have completely rejected Medicaid expansion money.
“Medicaid expansion has been available to the state of Wisconsin for several years, but we’ve decided not to take it because people want to play politics with healthcare,” Evers said. “It’s time for us to take that money, it’s money that Wisconsin folks have essentially paid to the federal government that’s going to other states. That’s unacceptable.”
Evers said the Medicaid expansion would expand coverage to an estimated 880 Sauk County residents as part of $23 million in health care investments in the county. The budget would also expand access to behavioral health services, improve access to dental services, increase hospital and physician funding, and increase funding for current Medicaid, BadgerCare Plus, SeniorCare, and FoodShare Employment and Training program members.
“We ran on this issue, and we won. In visits across the state people continued to talk about Medicaid expansion and how important it was to them, and we put together a budget with Medicaid expansion baked in. Seventy percent of people in a recent Marquette poll said we should do it,” Evers said. “Republican leadership is wrong on this and I’m counting on the people of this state to reach out to their representatives and encourage them to consider Medicaid Expansion. Just because it’s taken out of the budget doesn’t mean it can’t be put back in… The people of Wisconsin expect it.”
Evers included budget items to address gerrymandered maps, which allow republicans to vote against initiatives with broad public support with little fear of losing their seats in the legislature, but Republicans removed those items.
“Apparently they’re afraid that fairly drawn maps will impact them directly,” Evers said. “I think Republicans outside of the leadership vote against this at their own peril. First of all, it’s the right thing to do, and second of all, it’s the right thing to do politically. I’m baffled by that, I understand they follow their leadership in lockstep form, and I appreciate the political power of that, but it makes no sense politically to me.”
Evers budget proposed a two-year boost in school funding of about $1.4 billion. The Joint Finance Committee stripped Evers’ budget of many of the revenue sources that would pay for the boost in funding, resulting in an about $1.4 billion hole in the budget according to the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal bureau.
“Republicans have decided that deficit spending is something they’re encouraging,” Evers said. “The budget I proposed… especially for our schools would not only be getting our schools back to where they were… but also invest in some areas of mental health and special education that haven’t been increased in decades.”
Reedsburg School District over the biennium would see an increase of $2 million, which Evers said is a “lot of money.”
“Not only would that positively impact the education of kids with disabilities, but (it) really helps loosen up resources for the rest of the population,” Evers said. “It’s money that our schools need that’s been going to referendum the last several years. People are saying that if the state is not doing their share, then we are going to do it our way and increase property taxes, and that is not sustainable.”
Republicans have argued against changes in the budget to the formula used for school finances, that under Evers’ budget increases the amount schools receive through general aid while removing the school levy tax credit, the first dollar credit, and removing restrictions on the number of referendums schools can hold in a one-year period. Republicans claim that these changes will increase property taxes significantly.
Evers said the increase is under 4 percent for property taxes, with most of the increase due to prior referendums passed by school districts because the “state hasn’t done their share.”
“It’s a very small increase, and most of that increase is baked in because schools haven’t had the resources they’ve needed and had to go to referendum,” Evers said. “The school levy tax credit, essentially the school districts have to levy taxes in order to capture that money, that’s counted as state aid, and then they have to inflate their budget to capture that money. That money should go directly to them. There is no magic about that except for giving local school districts the money they should already be receiving.”
Wisconsin is, for the first time since 2007, contemplating a budget under split government with Republicans in control of the legislature and a governor who is a democrat. The 2007 budget was not signed until October of that year.
“For sure, we need to get this wrapped up before school starts,” Evers said. “October is too late, school districts are setting there levies at that time and it’s unfair to school districts for planning.”
Southwest Wisconsin, and especially Juneau County, is dealing with clean water issues related to contaminants found in well water. The federal government announced $61.7 million in funding for improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure May 9. Evers’ budget would boost funding for these programs.
“We’re starting out by making sure that we have science as a basis of our decision making in the Deparment of Natural Resources,” Evers said. “We have money in the budget for bonding for money to help people who need to replace their wells or dig deeper.”
Evers said the budget also includes money for farmers, to ensure that they’re following the best practices possible going forward to make sure runoff is not an issue.
“At the end of the day the state of Wisconsin needs to value clean water like we never have before,” Evers said. “We try to balance business interests and environmental interests in the state, and in the area of clean water that has not been a good balance, so we’re looking to… make sure the regulations of the state are followed and to get out in front of things.”
Evers said that while he is open to negotiating with Republicans and finding area to compromise, Republicans need to come to the table in good faith.
“The bottom line is… I don’t accept the fact that the Republican legislature decided to do their own budget,” Evers said. “At the end of the day there are some things which are really important, and school funding is one and Medicaid expansion is another.”
Asked if he is considering vetoing the budget if Republicans continue to strip away his proposals, Evers said he “believe(s) we’ll come to some agreement before then.”
“I’m not going to say I’d never do that, veto an entire budget, but I don’t expect to,” Evers said. “I’ll use the veto pen as much as I can to make sure that our peoples budget, that frankly was developed by the people of Wisconsin, is enacted.”