Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ first budget request may be a “liberal wish list” according to Republican lawmakers, but several progressive measures the governor touted on the campaign trail are notably missing.
The new governor’s budget request, his first real policy blueprint for the state, features a sweeping set of proposals that would undo many of the changes enacted under eight years of GOP rule. Evers also proposed legalizing medical marijuana, increasing the minimum wage to $9 per hour by 2021 and taking federal dollars to expand Medicaid to 82,000 Wisconsinites.
But he simultaneously forewent other major left-wing initiatives that would have curried favor with liberal supporters.
Such missing proposals include substantial steps to reduce the state’s growing prison population and a full repeal of the 2011 law known as Act 10 that reduced the power of public-sector labor unions.
He also called during the campaign for ending the reliance on revenue generated from veterans homes to shore up the Veterans Trust Fund, but continues that practice in the first year of his two-year proposal.
Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff emphasized he has plenty of time during his tenure to tackle initiatives that weren’t included in the budget.
“The governor is only two months into his four-year term,” Baldauff said in a statement. “He has proposed a budget that reflects the values he campaigned on, but more importantly, it reflects the will of the people who elected him and have made their voices heard over the past several months as he put the budget together.”
Reducing prison population
On the campaign trail, Evers vowed to halve the state’s prison population, estimated to reach a record 25,000 by 2021, calling it “a goal that’s worth accomplishing.”
But while the governor’s budget takes aim at several initiatives that could make inroads toward reducing the population, such as decriminalizing marijuana, reclassifying 17-year-olds as juveniles in criminal proceedings and providing more funding for drug treatment and job training, those alone won’t cut the prison population in half.
A Department of Corrections study reviewing prison admissions between 2000 and 2016 shows offenses for marijuana accounted for anywhere between 5.9 and 8.5 percent of total prison admissions in Wisconsin. Drug offenses in general accounted for between 21.2 and 27.8 percent of all state prison admissions in those years.
David Liners, executive director of WISDOM, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration, said he is “a little confused” as to the governor’s plan regarding the prison population, arguing his vow to cut it in half is not off to a good start.
He noted the governor’s capital budget request released Thursday, which provides his recommendations mostly for large state building projects, includes $15 million to construct two 144-bed barracks housing units at two state prisons. Barracks housing units typically take less time and resources to construct than other housing options.
Liners said housing barracks aren’t always temporary, with several of the state’s barracks housing units built decades ago still in operation.
“There’s a plan to fail, there’s a plan to actually increase the prison population in the second year,” Liners said. “The budget seems to assume business as usual.”
Baldauff noted the governor is spending millions to address the prison population through treatment and diversion programs, community policing and re-entry programs that focus on job training.
“The way we are doing it is by making sure fewer people are incarcerated in the first place,” Baldauff said.
Others, such as Walter Dickey, professor emeritus at the UW-Madison Law School and a former director at the Department of Corrections, said the governor’s vow to halve the prison population was improbable in the first place, and that the governor in his budget is trying to maintain order and management of the state’s existing population.
He said reducing the population in half would take a significant reallocation of resources and as much as a decade to implement.
For Liners, Evers’ budget proposal fell short on numerous fronts. It didn’t include initiatives that he said have been gaining bipartisan support, such as reducing so-called “crimeless” revocations, where offenders are sent back to prison for failing to meet the terms of their supervision.
Wisconsin’s unusually high number of criminal offenders on parole or probation and the length of their supervision are key contributors to the state’s growing prison population, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Justice Lab.
Those researchers also found the length of time criminal offenders are on supervision is nearly two times higher than the rest of the nation. They argue state lawmakers will need to make changes to community supervision laws if they want to make a dent in reducing the population.
A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum showed about 37 percent of inmates in 2017 were admitted after revocation and without a new sentence. That figure was 22 percent in 1990.
The Policy Forum and the Justice Lab suggests this increase is largely due to so-called “Truth in Sentencing” and parole expansion laws passed in the late 1990s. The laws required criminal offenders to serve the entire length of their prison sentence, plus a term of extended supervision, or parole, that is at least 25 percent of the length of the prison sentence.
Evers’ budget did not include a repeal of those laws, nor did it seek to make changes to the state’s revocation system, which has received bipartisan support.
Dickey said changes to the revocation system would be a prime place to start.
“If you make substantial inroads there, you’ve made substantial inroads in the prison population,” Dickey said.
Some changes to the way the state handles revocations could be done administratively, without legislative approval. Outside of changing the rules of supervision, Dickey said the state and communities could also invest more to provide adequate drug treatment, vocational training and education opportunities.
To some extent, Evers’ budget does that. It provides small to modest increases in funding for offender substance abuse treatment, job training and mental health initiatives.
“We were certainly thinking a much larger increase,” Liners said.
Veterans Trust Fund
Evers during the campaign and budget roll out this year railed against transferring funds from the state’s veterans retirement homes to the Veterans Trust Fund, the primary source of revenue for providing veterans and their family members access to programs, benefits and services. The fund has very little revenue of its own.
But in the first year of his budget, the governor, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, plans to transfer $13.8 million from veterans homes to the trust fund before ending the practice by switching to $15.8 million in state funds in the budget’s second year.
In recent years, the fund has taken millions of dollars from profitable veterans homes, such as the embattled Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, to support less profitable facilities.
For example, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs transferred about $55 million from the King Veterans Home over more than a decade as it delayed facilities improvements.
Baldauff said Evers cares about veterans and plans to fund the trust fund with state dollars in future budgets.
Evers has previously supported eliminating Act 10, the 2011 law that reduced the power of public-sector unions by requiring annual bargaining unit recertification elections, eliminating automatic union dues deductions from paychecks and prohibiting bargaining over benefits and workplace rules.
During the primary Evers said he supports a “piece by piece” repeal of the law. His budget rolls back the private-sector “right to work” law Democrats have criticized as being anti-union and reinstates prevailing wage laws for private-sector workers on state projects.
But his budget doesn’t roll back the public employee provisions of Act 10.
That didn’t sit well with one public employee union, AFSCME Council 32, which questioned why Evers would seek to reverse laws that weakened private-sector unions while not addressing their public counterparts.
“Governor Evers understands that investments in the people of Wisconsin lead to a strong state,” said AFSCME Wisconsin president Paul Spink in a statement after the budget release. “However, it is difficult to fully embrace a budget that does nothing to address unfair compensation for state employees, and continues to embrace Walker-era policies which silence the collective voice of all public-sector workers.”
Baldauff said the governor did exactly what he said he’d do.
“He didn’t campaign on repealing Act 10 in his first budget,” Baldauff said. “He did, however, propose the repeal of other anti-worker provisions that Republicans have enacted over the past eight years.”