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‘Irresponsible:’ Wisconsin GOP attacks Governor Evers’ budget as deliberations begin

MADISON — Republican legislators criticized Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget Wednesday, April 3 as “irresponsible” as they began their first day of public deliberations on revisions to the spending plan.

The GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee began the weeks-long revision process with briefings by officials from the departments of Public Instruction, Transportation and Health Services. The proceedings were expected to last all day. The committee wasn’t expected to take any votes, but the briefings served as an opening for Republicans to spend hours criticizing the budget in front of the media.

The briefings began with the panel’s Republican co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, railing against the budget before the first agency official so much as sat down in front the microphones. Nygren blasted the budget as “irresponsible.” Darling questioned how Evers could raise taxes by $1.3 billion and pointed out the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects that spending commitments laid out in the budget would lead to a nearly $2 billion shortfall heading into the 2021-23 budget.

That triggered a mini-quarrel with Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor and Sen. Jon Erpenbach. They said the budget addresses priorities that Republicans ignored for the eight years under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, including education and road repairs.

“All we’ve heard from the day this was introduced from Republicans is ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling.’ Well, it’s not,” Erpenbach said.

Nygren cut off debate and then launched into the K-12 portion of the budget.

Evers has proposed spending an additional $1.4 billion on schools, including $606 million more for special education. He also has called for capping enrollment in the state’s voucher school program, which using public funds to subsidize private school tuition. Democrats oppose the subsidies, saying they pull money away from public schools.

Nygren minimized the additional special education spending as a cost-shift. He argued that the money would simply replace dollars that schools are currently pulling from their operational budgets for special education and wouldn’t go toward expanding programs. He also attacked the plan to cap voucher participation, contending that the program offers options for students struggling in public schools.

DPI Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor responded that the state hasn’t devoted enough money to special education and called the voucher cap “a pause” while Evers decides how best to sustain subsidies.

Evers, who served as DPI superintendent before he defeated Walker in November, defended his K-12 plan in a series of tweets as the briefing was happening.

“It’s pretty simple: if a kid needs extra support, let’s give them that extra support,” he wrote in one of the tweets.

The transportation budget calls for raising the 32.9-cent per gallon gasoline tax by 8 cents and eliminating the state’s minimum mark-up on fuel. Evers has said the net result could be a 14-cent decrease in the per-gallon cost. He also would spend an additional $320 million on highway repairs and expansion.

Evers’ budget also calls for accepting federal Medicaid expansion, which would add about 82,000 low-income people to Medicaid and save the state about $320 million over the next two years thanks to an infusion of federal funding. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said there’s “no way” Medicaid will expand.

The finance committee is expected to spend several months revising the budget line-by-line before forwarding it on to the Legislature. The Senate and Assembly must pass an identical version before the document goes back to Evers, who can sign it into law or use his powerful partial veto powers to rewrite the plan to his liking.

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