Of all the bills that we vote on in the state legislature, the state budget is the most important. The Governor’s office spends months putting together a plan, and the legislature spends an equal amount of time making both major and minor modifications. This year was no exception.
When the Governor announced his budget in February, it contained elements that made me optimistic. The budget included provisions that held the line on property taxes while also containing funding increases for the sparsity aid program, for student transportation reimbursements, and for rural broadband. These were all items that I had lobbied the Governor’s office for prior to the budget announcement, and I was pleased to see that he was listening to rural Wisconsin.
Despite these positives, however, there were also many concerns. The proposed budget cut K-12 education, eliminated SeniorCare, fundamentally altered Family Care, IRIS, and the ADRCs, changed the way local tax assessments were conducted, altered the mission of the DNR and DATCP boards, and endangered the UW Colleges and UW-Extension with potential cuts. I am proud to say that I worked with my colleagues to alter or reverse each one of these proposals. Instead of a $127 million cut, K-12 funding will see a $70 million increase. The 2015 budget preserves SeniorCare, Family Care, IRIS, and the ADRCs as they are, tax assessments will remain local, and the citizens on the DNR and DATCP Boards will continue to be involved in making policy. Additionally, Rep. Romaine Quinn and I were able to secure the passage of a budget motion meant to safeguard UW Colleges and the UW-Extension from cuts to the University System. These changes are positive, and I am proud to have fought for them. Additionally, the budget includes prevailing wage reform that will save towns, cities, and school districts millions of dollars – a positive step for taxpayers.
Despite the improvements, however, I was not able to cast my vote in favor of this budget. Budgets should provide for the necessities of today as well as prepare for the priorities of the future. In the area of transportation, this budget falls short on both accounts. Infrastructure is the backbone of the economy, and maintaining our roads and bridges is necessary for economic growth. For at least the last decade, Wisconsin has failed to adequately maintain its roads, especially in the western and central parts of the state. The Zoo interchange is important, but so are our farm-to-market roads.
The transportation problem is not unique to Wisconsin. Nationally, the trend toward more fuel efficient vehicles and away from driving has reduced the revenues that states collect from the gas tax. To maintain and expand our infrastructure, I believe the state must make several adjustments. We should consider returning to gas tax indexing, establish registration fees for wheeled vehicles that use the roads, such as bikes, hybrids, and buggies, explore the idea of toll roads at the Illinois border, and review the way that transportation projects are greenlighted. The Governor’s solution of borrowing over $1 billion was unacceptable, but so was the legislature’s inability to address this issue head on in the budget.
An additional measure in the budget that concerned me was the statewide expansion of school choice. I believe that private school vouchers are a good option for communities with failing schools like Milwaukee. However, in the rest of the state, our solutions should be different. Mauston High School hosts the iLead public charter school, while Royall High School uses technology to cooperate with tech colleges in order to provide new learning options for our students. These are great examples of what our schools should be doing. Innovating in public education through new ideas or new technology is the way forward when it comes to education, and we need to encourage these efforts in the budget.
This budget came a long way in five months; it improved a lot, and I am happy about many of the investments that we make in growing Wisconsin. However, without a solid, fiscally responsible approach to transportation and without a stronger focus on public education, this budget could not earn my support.
Brooks (R-Reedsburg) has served in the Wisconsin State Assembly since 2009.