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Tony Evers releases budget; automatic voter registration, gas tax hike, minimum wage bump included

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BUDGET ADDRESS

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said even the proposals that appear to offer a compromise don't do enough to drive bipartisan appeal, arguing Evers hasn't brought Republican leaders into the fold to discuss ways to work together.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' two-year budget, released Thursday, would raise the gas tax by 8 cents, raise the minimum wage by $1.75 per hour by 2021, implement automatic voter registration and repeal a number of high-profile initiatives enacted by Republican former Gov. Scott Walker.

"At the end of the day, our budget is about putting people first," Evers, a Democrat, said in his budget address to the Legislature. "It’s about creating a Wisconsin that works for everyone — a Wisconsin for us. This isn’t the Tony Evers budget, the Democratic budget, the Speaker’s budget, or the Republican budget — this is the people’s budget."

To become law, Evers' $83.4 billion budget proposal will need support from Republicans who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature — but the spending plan includes a number of provisions Republicans have already declared non-starters, including decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, freezing enrollment in the state's voucher school programs and scaling back a tax credit for manufacturers.

Republican legislative leaders decried the budget as "liberal wishlist" and a missed opportunity to work across the aisle to achieve compromises. They noted that Evers' budget would increase spending by more than $7 billion compared to what Walker proposed in his final budget

"There was a complete disregard this evening for whether or not we could get the votes or momentum to actually get a budget done in this fashion," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. "It’s been completely thrown out the window at this point."

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the budget-writing committee will scrap Evers' proposal and work from current funding levels to craft a spending plan.

"Well, wow, hold onto your hats!" Darling said after the speech. "This is like back to the future, back to spending and taxes. We were so much on the right track … this budget puts us on the wrong track."

Democrats praised the plan for funneling money into education and women's health care while expanding Medicaid with federal funds and implementing a nonpartisan redistricting process. 

"That’s what a budget that actually addresses the challenges looks like. We’ll see what theirs looks like," said Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, of Republican criticism. "I’m hearing a lot of criticism — I’m not hearing any answers, and we didn’t hear them for eight years. So I don’t think you get to complain about some of the things that are being proposed if you were completely incompetent and unwilling to address the issues when you had a chance."

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, praised the plan as one that "works for everyone and tackles the tough issues that have been ignored for far too long."

"Democrats are eager to work with Gov. Evers and deliver on his promise to protect access to clean drinking water, close corporate tax loopholes, increase child care affordability and invest in 21st century infrastructure," Shilling said in a statement.

The proposal includes some provisions Republicans have signaled a willingness support, including funding for treatment alternatives and diversion programs, substance abuse and mental health services, $3.75 million in funding for homelessness initiatives and more funding for criminal justice positions including prosecutors and private attorneys who represent indigent defendants. 

"You know, I’ve heard some remark that the people of Wisconsin chose divided government this November. I don’t think that’s the case," Evers said. "The people of Wisconsin didn’t choose for us to be divided, they chose for us to find it within ourselves to be united, not in party, but in promise — to serve our state, and to do what’s best for the people who sent us here."

But Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said even the proposals that appear to offer a compromise don't do enough to drive bipartisan appeal, arguing Evers hasn't brought Republican leaders into the fold to discuss ways to work together.

Transportation

Evers' budget allocates $6.6 billion to funding transportation projects, limiting borrowing to $224 million — the lowest level in at least two decades. 

The state's gas tax would go up by 8 cents per gallon,  raising an estimated $485 million over the biennium. But at the same time, the 75-year-old Unfair Sales Act, which bans retailers from selling items below cost, would be repealed. Evers argued that by eliminating the "minimum mark-up" on fuel sales, drivers could pay as much as 14 cents per gallon less at the pump despite the gas tax hike. Some Republicans have pushed for a minimum mark-up repeal over the last several years, but others have opposed it. 

Evers' minimum markup proposal earned plaudits from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a frequent critic of the governor, but WILL policy analyst Collin Roth argued the repeal should not be tied to a tax increase.

Evers would also restore gas tax indexing — annual increases tied to inflation — raising an estimated $42 million. The practice was approved with bipartisan support in 1985 and ended with bipartisan support in 2005.

Registration fees on heavy trucks would increase by 27 percent, and the fee on original and transfer vehicle titles would increase, raising a combined total of $72 million. The state would take in $9.7 million by collecting an existing fee on hybrid vehicles. Evers' budget would also end the practice of transferring 0.25 percent of general fund tax revenue to the state's transportation fund.

"Everyone is going to have to give a little to make this work. That’s compromise," Evers said. "We’re all going to have to share the burden so this is feasible for everyone, and to make sure we’re not passing the buck to the next generation."

Evers' budget allocates $1.9 billion to the state highway rehabilitation program, an increase of $320 million, and $1.9 million for the local road improvement program. The proposal also includes a $22 million increase to the state's 81 transit systems, $2 million for airports to upgrade their air traffic control systems and $45 million to upgrade passenger rail service between Milwaukee and Chicago. 

Under the proposal, the Milwaukee-area Zoo Interchange project would be completed as designed and funding would be enumerated for the expansion of Interstate 43 from two lanes to three lanes in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties. 

Health care

Evers would accept federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to an additional 82,000 low-income Wisconsin residents by expanding eligibility to people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Evers estimates the move would free up $320 million to fund other health initiatives. 

The state would seek federal approval to launch a prescription drug importation program to drive down drug costs and would undo a provision passed in a December lame-duck session that gave the Legislature more authority over health care waiver requests made by the governor. 

The budget would spend nearly $28 million to fund efforts to expand access to women's health care, reduce infant mortality rates and restore eligibility to Planned Parenthood for funding that was stripped away under Walker. 

BUDGET ADDRESS

Gov. Tony Evers, flanked by Rep. Tyler August and Speaker Robin Vos, delivered his budget address Thursday night at the Capitol: "Equally important to insuring educational equity in Wisconsin, is ensuring improved police and community relations within our communities of color."

It also includes $43 million to expand access to dental care throughout the state and about $52 million to reduce and prevent childhood lead poisoning. 

Under Evers' proposal, patients would be able to legally use marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of ailments like cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and CBD oil would be more easily obtained.

Education

Evers, the former state superintendent of schools, would give K-12 schools an additional $1.4 billion while overhauling the state's school funding formula and stipulating that two-thirds of public school funding would come from the state budget.

The budget includes $606 million in new funding for special education programs, an additional $58 million for mental health programs and an additional $41 million for bilingual-bicultural programs. It would also expand and fund new programs in the state's five largest school districts, which have disproportionate shares of students with significant achievement gaps.

It would also halt the growth of the state's private voucher school and independent charter school programs.

Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, called the proposal "a direct assault on Wisconsin('s) historic and successful school choice program."

"Without this program, children across Wisconsin will be trapped in schools that fail to meet their educational needs. This change would have a devastating effect on Wisconsin’s students that will have a ripple effect for years to come," Stroebel said in a statement.

But Wisconsin Public Education Network executive director Heather DuBois Bourenane said the budget is a "direct reflection of the concerns that parents, educators and school leaders have been raising for years, and provides immediate solutions to many of our most pressing financial problems, including addressing the funding disparities between 'haves' and 'have nots' in our state."

The University of Wisconsin System would receive a $150 million boost, including funding to continue a tuition freeze implemented by former Walker, a pay raise for UW employees, a provision to allow Dreamers to pay in-state tuition and a study to determine the feasibility of creating a student loan refinancing authority.

"We’re going to make sure that, regardless of whether a kid was born in this country, if they went to a Wisconsin high school and have lived here for three years, they shouldn’t have to pay more for tuition like an out-of-state student — they should be treated like any other kid from Wisconsin," Evers said.

Criminal justice

Evers' plan would decriminalize the possession, manufacturing or distribution of marijuana for 25 grams or less, and would allow people previously convicted of that crime who have completed their sentence or probation to have the charge expunged from their records. This provision has sparked opposition from some Republicans.

The budget would raise the age to charge juvenile offenders as adults from 17 to 18 and would delay the closure of the troubled Lincoln Hills youth prison indefinitely. 

Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, praised Evers' proposal to allocate $2 million for a community policing grant program in the state's 10 cities with the highest violent crime rates.

"Equally important to insuring educational equity in Wisconsin, is ensuring improved police and community relations within our communities of color," Crowley said in a statement. "Governor Tony Evers understands this and I applaud the $2 million that he is including in his first budget to help fix the broken relationship that exists between the police and communities of color throughout our state."

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A program designed to help inmates with serious mental illnesses successfully re-enter society would see an $8 million funding increase with two additional positions to allow it to operate throughout the entire state. 

Funding would be allocated to create about 40 new assistant district attorney positions, convert about 7 part-time positions to full-time and create permanent funding for 7.5 grant-funded, full-time positions. Thirty-four counties would see a staffing increase and three would retain current levels. Private attorneys who represent defendants who can't afford to hire their own lawyers would be reimbursed at a rate of $70 an hour — a $30 increase to the state's current rate, which is the lowest in the nation. The rate would increase tied to inflation after the initial boost. Republican lawmakers have previously asked for similar provisions to be included in the budget.

Evers' budget would fund an additional 17 crime lab analyst positions in the Department of Justice, along with an additional sexual assault resource prosecutor, three positions dedicated to fighting white-collar crime and two in DOJ's Internet Crimes Against Children task force. 

Voting

Evers' budget requires the state Elections Commission to work with the Department of Transportation to implement an automatic voter registration "as quickly as practicable." 

It also undoes changes passed during the lame-duck session that prevented people from using an expired student ID to vote and prevented voters from using a temporary voter ID for more than 60 days.

The budget would also put the state's redistricting process in the hands of a nonpartisan board rather than partisan elected officials, a move supported by 72 percent of Wisconsin voters according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. 

Workforce

The state's $7.25 per hour minimum wage would increase to $8.25 in 2020 and $9 in 2021. It would increase 75 cents per year in the next two years, then be tied to inflation. Evers would also create a task force with appointees from his administration and legislative leaders to study ways to move the state toward a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

Evers would repeal the state's right-to-work law, signed by Walker in 2015, which prevents businesses from entering contracts with unions requiring all workers to pay union fees. He would also restore the state's prevailing wage law, which sets minimum pay requirements for construction workers on public projects and was eliminated in the 2017-19 budget. Evers would also once again allow state and local governments to require contractors to reach project labor agreements with unions on publicly-funded projects.

Environment

The budget sets a "statutory goal" to have all electricity produced in Wisconsin be carbon-free by 2050. 

It also creates an Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy with the state Department of Natural Resources, with five full-time positions that would be transferred from the Public Service Commission. 

Evers would also create a Bureau of Natural Resources Science within the DNR, allocating five new science positions to research water quality and contamination issues. 

In his State of the State address last month, Evers declared 2019 "the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin." His budget proposes borrowing nearly $70 million to tackle groundwater contamination and lead pipe replacement.

Taxes

Evers would implement a 10 percent income tax cut for individual filers earning less than $80,000 and married couples earning less than $125,000. The credit would cost the state about $833 million over the two-year budget period. Evers' budget would cover about half the cost of the cut by scaling back a credit for manufacturers, a measure Republicans have vowed to oppose, and making several other tax code adjustments.

The budget would limit a 30 percent capital gains exclusion to individuals making less than $100,000 and married couples making less than $150,000. The provision would retain capital gains incentives for investments in Wisconsin businesses, along with a 60 percent exclusion for capital gains from farm assets. 

Working families with one child would see a 7 percent increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit; they could claim 11 percent of the federal credit. Families with two children could claim 14 percent, a 3 percent increase. Evers would also expand the Homestead Credit by tying it to inflation and expanding eligibility to a household income of $30,000 per year. 

Evers would implement a nonrefundable child and dependent care credit equal to 50 percent of the federal credit, and would allow first-time homebuyers to start savings accounts. Single individuals could subtract up to $5,000 in contributions per year from their taxable income and married couples could subtract up to $10,000.

Homelessness

The budget includes a $3.75 million homelessness initiative introduced by Republican lawmakers earlier this month based on recommendations made by the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness. The package includes $1 million to help prevent evictions, $600,000 to fund short-term assistance and a $1.8 million boost for the state's Housing Assistance Program, which funds permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing and transitional housing.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.