The Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee on Tuesday voted to approve about $1.9 billion for state building projects, with about half earmarked for upgrades and renovations at University of Wisconsin System buildings, many of which have gone without repairs for years.
The Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 along party lines on the 2019-21 capital budget, which calls for about $1 billion in state-funded borrowing.
The committee pared back Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ $2.5 billion request, cutting $30 million for redevelopment of the Alliant Energy Center in Dane County and two projects at UW-La Crosse, among others.
The overall size of the committee’s capital proposal — more than double what was passed in the 2017-19 capital budget — drew some praise from Democrats who said the $1.9 billion number showed Republicans were following Evers’ lead.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the committee, said the system in place for state building projects is “broken,” with private lobbyists advocating for specific buildings and the price tags of some projects being too high.
“I think it’s bad for the taxpayer,” he said. “But at the same time, I know that (the state) needs an influx of investment.”
Getting approval from both the Assembly and Senate may be difficult.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said the amount passed Tuesday evening exceeded a record high $1.7 billion in borrowing from former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in the 2009-11 budget.
“Excessive spending and bonding is now the rage in the State Capitol as Republicans try to buy Governor Evers’ support for our version of the budget,” Nass said in a statement. “Tonight was another win for big spending and a loss for the taxpayers.”
UW System leaders say the money is needed to address a growing backlog of projects that went unaddressed in past budget bienniums.
System President Ray Cross said in a statement that he “deeply appreciates” the committee’s investment.
“This will help us modernize laboratories and classrooms, repair aging and unsafe facilities, and replace obsolete structures,” he said. “This long-term investment will help attract and retain more students and faculty.”
Cross and campus leaders were worried after the State Building Commission met in March to take up Evers’ projects list and make recommendations on which ones to fund. The commission deadlocked each vote along party lines for the first time in at least four decades.
The lack of a recommendation worried System officials and campus leaders, sending them off on a multi-campus tour to promote the need for money to renovate and repair dilapidated buildings.
At UW-Milwaukee, maintenance staff receive about 450 repair requests per year for the Chemistry Building.
At UW-Eau Claire, Chancellor Jim Schmidt referred to his campus’ science hall as the “Frankenstein building” that often needs new parts.
UW-Madison’s veterinary medicine teaching hospital, the only one in the state, was built to accommodate about 12,000 patient visits each year, but the school had more than double that number of visits in the most recent fiscal year. The university asked for the state to fund two-thirds of a $128 million expansion and renovation, with donations covering the rest of the project slated to finish by January 2025.
Under the plan approved Tuesday, all three projects will get the funding System officials requested.
“When we reached out to legislators on these vitally important projects, they heard our needs and responded with their support,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement. “We are grateful for today’s approval and look forward to these projects moving forward quickly.”
Other UW-Madison projects that lawmakers approved include upgrades to Camp Randall Stadium, a renovation and expansion to Sellery Hall, a new natatorium and renovations to the Kohl Center. Most of those are funded through revenue such as ticket sales and parking fees, not state-funded borrowing.
Republicans dropped two UW-La Crosse projects from their list: a planned, second phase of the Prairie Springs Science Center and renovations and additions to two residence halls. Lawmakers also scaled back a $38 million request to update and improve science, technology, engineering and math facilities down to about $32 million.
The committee dramatically cut Evers’ proposal for Department of Corrections buildings to open new, smaller state- and county-run facilities that would partially replace the embattled Lincoln Hills youth prison. The Legislature last year unanimously passed a bill to close the troubled youth prison outside Irma by January 2021.
Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said leaving the money out of the budget will delay Lincoln Hills from closing even longer.
The committee approved $44 million to expand a Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center.
The committee included $70 million in state-funded borrowing for a new, 100,000-square-foot facility for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
But it dropped Evers’ request for $30 million from the state to redevelop the Alliant Energy Center.
Democrats and Evers said the project could raise the state’s profile in industries such as agriculture and biomedical engineering, and attract more conventions.
“I knew this was a longshot,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, citing its location in Dane County as the reason Republicans opposed it.
The committee also approved a measure authorizing the Department of Administration, in consultation with the Madison Police Department, to study and submit a report on the security and safety of the Capitol grounds by Jan. 1, 2020.
Democrats opposed the plan, questioning what the intent of the review was, why no money was included in the request and whether the Madison Police Department was notified.
Republicans said safety is a national conversation right now and the Madison police are being asked to offer input.
“It’s good common sense,” said Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. “Why wouldn’t you want to do this?”