MADISON — Let the budget battle begin. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' introduced his first state budget Thursday evening, Feb. 28, and Republicans say many of his proposals are dead on arrival.
Gas taxes would increase but the cost to fill up may actually drop, income taxes would be cut for the middle class and most of the laws passed during a lame-duck legislative session that weakened the governor and attorney general would be repealed under Evers' budget.
Evers' budget unveiled Thursday checks off numerous items on Democratic wish lists, but will run into a Republican buzz saw. Majority Republicans are all but certain to block many of his biggest initiatives. Those include expanding Medicaid coverage to 82,000 more people, freezing enrollment in private voucher schools, scaling back a manufacturing tax credit program and legalizing medical marijuana.
Evers implored lawmakers to work together to reach a deal on his budget.
"We cannot afford to play politics with this budget," Evers said in his remarks as prepared for delivery. "Folks, the stakes are simply too high. ... I've said all along that there's more that unites us than divides us. We just have to choose to put people before politics."
Evers also called for repealing Wisconsin's "right-to-work" law and reinstating prevailing wage requirements , actions taken by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker that weakened powers of unions in Wisconsin. However, Evers' proposed budget doesn't touch Walker's signature move, the Act 10 law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
In another swipe at Walker's legacy, he would undo work and drug test requirements Republicans put in place for people to qualify for Medicaid and food stamps.
The plan's unveiling during a joint meeting of the Legislature on Thursday night kicks off the monthslong process of lobbying, cajoling, bartering and begging to get a deal that Evers and Republicans can agree to this summer.
Republicans in December met in a lame-duck session to weaken Evers and incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul just days before they took office. Four lawsuits have been filed challenging all or parts of the laws, but Evers is proposing repeal of nearly everything enacted.
Republicans are almost certainly not going to undo what they just enacted.
Evers, the former state schools chief, is also calling for a $1.4 billion boost in K-12 education funding, a 10 percent income tax cut targeting the middle class and a $150 million boost for the University of Wisconsin.
He wants to extend in-state tuition to people here illegally who graduated from Wisconsin high schools and are pursuing citizenship. He would also make people in the country illegally eligible for driver's license and ID cards. Republicans oppose both measures.
He would increase the state minimum wage to $8.25 in 2020, $9 in 2021 and increase it 75 cents per year in each of the next two years and then tie future increases to inflation.
Evers does not call for building a new prison to deal with overcrowding, but would add three barracks at two existing facilities to house about 430 additional inmates. He does not raise hunting or fishing or camping fees, but does propose raising the 32.9-cent per-gallon gas tax by 8 cents, with inflationary increases after that.
To mitigate that, he would repeal the state's minimum mark-up law. That law prohibits the sale of gas below what it costs a retailer to purchase, resulting in a roughly 9 percent markup at the pump. Evers estimated that doing away with that would shave 14 cents off a gallon of gas.
His transportation plan increases vehicle title fees and heavy truck registration fees, but does not increase the $75 registration fee paid by most vehicle owners. It would boost funding for highways by $320 million, finishes work on the Zoo Interchange interstate project in Milwaukee and funds expansion of Interstate 43 in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties.
Under the budget, property taxes on the median-valued home would increase $50 in each of the next two years.
Spending under the $83.4 billion, two-year budget would increase 5.4 percent the first year and 4.9 percent the second year. Evers pays for most of the spending through the higher gas tax, reducing the manufacturing tax credit, tapping projected revenue growth and accepting federal money through the Medicaid expansion. Taxes overall would increase by about $550 million over two years.
Republican leaders call Evers' plan a thousand page public relations plan, and one the state can't afford.
"His numbers are so out of touch," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
The GOP claims Evers' budget will raise taxes on middle class families.
"No one wants to pay $4,000 more in taxes," said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Evers has forced the GOP to write its own plan.
"We don't have a choice," said Fitzgerald.
The new budget year starts on July 1. If the Legislature has not passed a budget Evers can sign by then, the old one remains in effect.
In 2017, when Walker was governor and Republicans controlled the Legislature, disagreement over transportation funding delayed passage until September. In 2007, the last time there was divided government, the budget was not signed until October.
Excerpts from Gov. Evers' 2019-21 Biennial Budget Address
"...I want everyone to understand how we arrived here. At the end of the day, our budget is about putting people first. It’s about creating a Wisconsin that works for everyone--a Wisconsin for us. This isn’t the Tony Evers budget, the Democratic budget, the Speaker’s budget, or the Republican budget--this is The People’s Budget. And it’s one that we crafted together.
"We heard from people like Maryann who lives in Coleman in Senator Tiffany and Representative Mursau’s district and Nancy who lives in Amherst in Senator Testin and Representative Shankland’s district. Both Maryann and Nancy came to our listening sessions and talked to us about water quality and water pollution issues across our state.
"Because of people like Maryann and Nancy, we announced we’re making safe drinking water a top priority in Wisconsin. We’re authorizing nearly $70 million in bonding to address water quality, from replacing lead service lines to addressing water contamination across our state. I know Representative Shankland has been working with us closely on this issue. Thank you, Representative Shankland, and to Maryann and Nancy, who are here with us in the gallery tonight, for advocating on this important issue.
"We also heard from people like Tony who lives in Senator Petrowski and Representative Snyder’s district in Wausau. Tony not only has a great first name, but he also came to one of our listening sessions and talked about why we need driver’s licenses for immigrants and persons who are undocumented, especially in communities where there’s limited access to public transportation.
"Because of people like Tony, we’re announcing tonight that undocumented folks will be eligible to receive driver’s licenses and ID cards. This makes our roads and our communities safer, and helps strengthen our economy and Wisconsin families. I know Representative Zamarripa has worked on this issue, and Tony is here with us in the gallery tonight--thank you both for your work on this issue.
"And finally, I shared that tonight so that everybody understands what’s at stake in choosing to play politics with this budget."