Southwest Wisconsin’s legislators are not exactly effusive in their praise of the 2015–17 state budget, passed by the Legislature last week and signed into law, with vetoes, by Gov. Scott Walker Sunday.
In fact, Reps. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City) and Todd Novak (R–Dodgeville) didn’t vote for the budget. Tranel and Novak were two of 11 Assembly Republicans who voted against the budget.
“It’s like any other budget — there are some good points and there are some points that could have been improved,” said Tranel. “We held the line on government and the continued growth of government; no new tax increases. We were able to cut the reductions to some parts of the budget, K–12 [education] and the UW System.
“The reason I voted against the budget was because this budget just wasn’t good for Southwest Wisconsin. It was definitely good for some parts of the state and not others.”
“As with any budget there are good things and bad things; however in the end I could not in good conscience vote for this budget,” said Novak. “After holding several listening sessions in the district and talking to my constituents it was very apparent that K–12 funding and cuts to the university system were a concern.
“Although we were able to restore the cuts the governor made to the school districts I believe it fell short. I firmly believe that Southwest Wisconsin has some of the best school districts in the state, but many are struggling. This budget doesn’t do much to help them.”
“If you look at the budget as a whole, it freezes property taxes, and property taxes are the most hated tax in Wisconsin, and in my district,” said Sen. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green), who voted for the budget when it passed the Senate 18–15.
Marklein said the budget eliminates some tax deductions that are “little used or more targeted,” but increases the deduction for married couples filing joint tax returns, which he said will most benefit couples making $30,000 to $100,000 per year.
The budget also gives a state tax deduction for teachers who pay for their own school supplies, a deduction already offered at the federal level. “It’s good policy and it also simplifies things,” said Marklein.
The budget also creates A Better Life Experience accounts for the parents of disabled people to save money to pay for later care after the parents’ deaths, similar in structure to 529 college-savings accounts.
In addition, said Novak, “I am proud of the work I did to help save Senior Care and make changes to the plans the governor had in his budget for ADRCs, Family Care and IRIS. I spent a lot of time working with advocacy groups in the district to save these essential programs and made sure their voices were heard in Madison.”
Tranel doesn’t like how the state apportions money for schools, on a per-pupil basis, where schools with growing enrollment get more money and schools with diminishing enrollment get less.
Schools in, for instance, southeast Wisconsin “seem to have money for all sorts of things we don’t in Southwest Wisconsin,” said Tranel, who added that dropping enrollment “is the number one issue we face in Southwest Wisconsin. … Even though their enrollment decreases, their fixed costs continue to increase.”
Some money that could have gone to public schools went instead to an expansion of the private-school voucher program statewide.
“I’m a big supporter of the voucher program in Milwaukee, where there is significant population that doesn’t have better access to public education,” said Tranel. “Those public schools in that part of the state can’t provide the quality education that public schools in Southwest Wisconsin can. I rarely if ever hear from a constituent a complaint about the quality of education in Southwest Wisconsin public schools.”
Marklein supported one revenue increase, a hike in camping fees for what he called “high-demand [state] parks” that “ended up raising a lot of money. From a fairness stake, it makes sense.”
The most controversial item removed from the budget before the Legislature’s votes was a proposal to largely exempt the Legislature from the state Open Records Law.
A statement from Marklein one week ago said he “had to make a very difficult choice last week. I had to choose whether to abandon all of the good parts of the 999 [omnibus] motion by voting against it — or vote for it and then work to seek an amendment to withdraw this element individually without undoing all of the good things that we accomplished.”
Marklein authored the Senate motion that removed the Open Records Law changes from the budget.
Two major Southwest Wisconsin items were vetoed from the budget.
“Some of the vetoes I supported; some of them I asked for,” said Marklein. “There are some things that were vetoed that I am disappointed in.”
“It seemed like a few things that were beneficial to Southwest Wisconsin got vetoed,” said Tranel. “It’s hard to understand the logic of how some things got vetoed and some didn’t.”
The biggest-scope item was funding outside the state tourism budget for the Frank Lloyd Wright Heritage Trail. The trail originally was to go from Racine to Spring Green, but Marklein got an extension to Richland Center, Wright’s birthplace, added as part of the omnibus Joint Finance Committee vote.
Another would have funded $100,000 over the next two years for Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office drug enforcement.
“Lafayette County is the only county in my district that doesn’t belong to a drug task force because of limited financial resources,” said Novak. “After discussions with Sheriff Reg Gill and hearing his concerns, I worked to develop a grant for Lafayette County that wouldn’t use state tax dollars as the money for the grant would come from the crime lab and drug enforcement surcharge, and the DNA surcharge. The Joint Finance Committee unanimously voted to put the grant into the state budget.
“The governor’s office called me Friday night to talk to me about the grant and said while he supported it, he was vetoing it because he had decided to veto all earmarks. I am encouraged, though, as the governor’s office said they want to work with me to find another avenue for a grant. In fact in the Governor’s veto message he wrote, ‘I encourage the Lafayette County sheriff to work with the Attorney General to pursue funding to address law enforcement needs in the county.’ I will be working with Sheriff Gill and hopefully we will be able to find funding.”
Another veto Marklein disagrees with was a requirement for the DNR to sell 10,000 acres of surplus crop land, purchased with Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund money as part of a purchase of land sought by the DNR. The proposal would have dedicated half of surplus land sales to debt reduction and half to pay for other land purchases, instead of borrowing for Stewardship Fund land purchases.
One issue all three legislators feel was mishandled in the budget is transportation funding. Borrowing proposed in Walker’s original budget was reduced from $1.3 billion to $500 million, but a number of proposed projects were cut from the 2015–17 budget. That could result in pushing back scheduled work on U.S. 61 from Lancaster to Boscobel.
Tranel said the budget contained “no real solution” for transportation funding. “With the supposed makeup of our conservative Legislature, they’re OK with borrowing for projects in Southeast Wisconsin,” he said. “I live on a road I really can’t drive my tractor at 20 mph.”
Tranel favored a proposal to increase the gas tax as long as gas prices stay below $3 per gallon, with parts of the gas tax increase earmarked for local roads. He also said he has “no problem with tolling” or for allowing county sales tax increases targeted to local transportation.
“The last thing I want to do is to do what they did in Iowa with the gas tax increase and it got sucked up in transportation megaprojects,” he said.
“On a long-term basis transportation needs have to be addressed,” said Marklein. “This budget cut costs, but we have not addressed the long-term transportation needs of the state.”
“I fear that our state’s transportation spending is on an unsustainable path,” said Novak. “All you have to do is drive the roads of Southwest Wisconsin to realize we are getting the short end of the stick out here on transportation funding.”
Walker signed the budget one day before he announced he was running for president Monday.
“If you’re running for president, the budget he proposed and signed looked pretty good,” said Tranel.
“To say the governor wasn’t peeking into the future somewhat wouldn’t be accurate” in Walker’s opposition to tax increases in the budget, said Marklein. “To say what effect that had on the budget process would be speculation.”
“I don’t want to speculate on what Gov. Walker’s thought process was when he put the budget together or his vetoes,” said Novak. “My main concern was that the people in my district be heard on the budget and I relayed their input. Unfortunately the final budget was something I could not support.”
Marklein said Walker’s position from the beginning was “no tax increases, period, end of discussion, non-negotiable. Whether you’d attribute that to his presidential ambitions or promises made on the campaign trail, it was clear there weren’t going to be revenue increases. He drew the line in the sand, and it’s still there.”