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Rep. John Nygren, Sen. Alberta Darling and Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee approved funding provisions for the Department of Children and Families, including an increase over the next two years for child welfare services. 

The Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee voted Tuesday to approve an additional $30 million for child welfare services funding in state and federal dollars, exceeding the increase Gov. Tony Evers sought over the next two years.

But in all, the approximately $126 million total raise the Joint Finance Committee signed off on for the Department of Children and Families is nearly $66 million less than the increase Evers wanted. The majority of the increase, $77 million, would go to upping reimbursement rates for the Wisconsin Shares program. 

The action, including the child welfare funding raise, comes as counties have logged increasing costs to the child welfare services they provide largely due to the ongoing opioid and meth epidemic ravaging the state.

The $30 million increase would be funneled through children and family aids allocations, the primary funding mechanism for those services.

Amid the mounting caseloads for county caseworkers, increases in out-of-home care expenses and a lack of foster homes to meet the rising demand, the Wisconsin Counties Association requested an additional $30 million over the 2019-21 cycle in those allocations.

And the committee voted 11-4 along party lines to allocate $23.5 million in state general purpose revenue and $7 million in federal matching funding to counties, totaling $30.5 million over the next two years.

Evers has proposed an $18.75 million increase in GPR over the biennium.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said the Republican motion would help a child welfare system “that is overwhelmed.”

The raised investment, she said, came after the committee “heard over and over and over again across the state” about the need for “a more significant increase” in children and family aids.

“I’m proud of this motion, I’m proud of our commitment to kids and families,” she said.

Wisconsin’s child welfare system is county-operated in all counties but Milwaukee County, where its program has been administered by the state since the late 1990s following a lawsuit and subsequent legislation approving the takeover.

Part of the GOP language would also target Milwaukee County's contribution for child welfare services. County officials are responsible for contributing $58.9 million per year for those services, largely covered via reductions in state aid and shared revenue payments to the county. But the motion would effectively increase that contribution over the next two years. 

In all, it would amount to a $14 million cut in shared revenue payments to Milwaukee County beyond what's budgeted — language Sen. LaTonya Johnson slammed as unfair. 

"How dare you say that this bill, whatever you want to call it, is fair to the counties and fair to the children of this state?" the Milwaukee Democrat asked. "That’s absolutely ridiculous."

Outside of Milwaukee County, social workers in counties have an average caseload of one worker for 30 children, according to a caseload study from the Wisconsin County Human Services Association. The Child Welfare League of America, though, recommends between 12 and 15 children per social worker.

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