Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, weighed in on major proposals in Gov. Scott Walker's budget and his own political future at a WisPolitics luncheon on Thursday.
The governor introduced his $76.1 billion budget proposal on Wednesday. It will next go before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee before it is sent to the full Legislature.
The budget includes $592 million in tax and fee cuts, including a proposed 5 percent tuition cut for University of Wisconsin System students. It would put money into education, transportation, tax relief and workforce development, areas Walker's earlier budgets aimed to cut.
The budget includes $648.9 million in per-pupil aid for K-12 education, a portion of which would be funded by $60 million in projected savings from moving to a self-insurance model for state employees. Under that model, the state would contract with insurers and third-party administrators to pay for public employees' medical bills directly rather than pay premiums to insurance companies.
Legislators have always been interested in knowing how such a model might work, Fitzgerald said, but many had predicted the cost savings would be significantly larger than what was presented in the governor's budget.
Fitzgerald himself is skeptical of the plan, he said.
"People are worried about the job loss it could create across the state," Fitzgerald said. "There’s some ripple effect even beyond directly state employees — other health care systems that could falter as a result of that."
That ripple effect could make it difficult for insurance companies to continue serving the markets they currently serve, Fitzgerald said.
On K-12 education
Fitzgerald said the budget will "almost absolutely" include increased funding for K-12 schools.
"Will it be the same number the governor used? Probably not," he said.
Some Republican lawmakers would like to see extra money go toward the transportation fund to reduce the level of bonding, Fitzgerald said.
Asked whether he would be open to lifting enrollment caps for taxpayer-funded voucher schools, Fitzgerald said, "Absolutely."
On the University of Wisconsin System
In-state undergraduate students at UW System schools would see a tuition freeze in the first year of Walker's budget, followed by a 5 percent tuition cut in the second year. The cut would be paid for with a $35 million bump in general purpose revenue. That would come on top of a $100 million increase to the UW budget, $42.5 million of which would be tied to performance metrics based on affordability, workforce success of graduates, administrative efficiency and other criteria.
Fitzgerald said he hears concerns from parents and students about the cost of student fees, but said tinkering with that area can be like "quicksand."
"I think we can get bogged down if we dig too deep into that stuff," he said.
Walker's budget proposal would allow students to opt out of paying allocable segregated fees that go toward campus activities and services offered by student government and campus leadership, which would let students "make the decisions on what they do and do not want to fund."
Fitzgerald said that proposal is something to "examine," but may not lead to any changes.
On teacher licensing
Under Walker's budget, teachers and school administrators would no longer have to renew their licenses every five years, which the governor's office said would save faculty more than $750 over a 30-year career. Teachers could still be fired for misconduct and school districts would still be required to perform background checks.
"I’m not sure why the governor did it, I guess," Fitzgerald said. "If he thinks it’s going to bring all the teachers back into the fold for the Republicans he’s probably wrong."
The budget includes about $204 million in income tax reductions for all taxpayers. Fitzgerald said he's uncertain about that plan.
"I think we’ve been down that path before and it’s resulted in not enough bang for the buck," he said.
On the Department of Natural Resources
Fitzgerald said a proposal to raise some state park fees will probably stay in the budget. He also said he doesn't see the Legislature pursuing a plan to split the department into multiple agencies since the governor didn't include it in his budget.
On his political future
One of President Donald Trump's most active surrogates in Wisconsin, Fitzgerald said he was asked by the president's team to submit his resume and did so. He hasn't heard back from the administration since then, he said.
Fitzgerald said he isn't closing the door on challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, but he warned against the effects of a crowded primary draining resources from the candidate who emerges.
U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy is "well-positioned" to run against Baldwin, Fitzgerald said.
"He's kind of driving the train right now," he added.
Duffy drew criticism earlier this week after calling a recent terrorist attack committed by a white extremist a "one-off" and arguing there is a "difference" between such an attack and the ones perpetrated by ISIS. The congressman also said "good things" came from the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, because Gov. Nikki Haley removed the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds.
Fitzgerald said he wouldn't speak directly to Duffy's comments, but said it sounded like Duffy had retracted them. Duffy is a "solid guy" who would make a good Senate candidate, Fitzgerald said.