Barring a tectonic shift in public opinion or the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, the only thing standing between Gov. Scott Walker and a presidential candidacy announcement is $68.4 billion.
That's the size of Walker's proposed two-year budget and until it's signed into law, the Republican governor has pledged not to make any decisions about a White House bid for 2016.
The budget has been in the hands of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee for weeks. The panel of lawmakers will make changes to the governor's proposals, with plans to wrap up its work by the end of this month. Votes in the Senate and Assembly are expected in June. Once it's approved by the Legislature, the budget can be changed by Walker with his line-item veto.
Walker's budget is not a popular one. Nearly 40 percent of voters say Wisconsin's budget picture is worse than it was several years ago, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released last month.
Within the budget are a handful of proposals opposed by a majority of voters in the state:
- A $127 million cut to K-12 education, opposed by 78 percent of voters.
- A $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, opposed by 70 percent.
- Plans to borrow about $150 million to support a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, opposed by 79 percent.
And while 51 percent of voters are supportive of borrowing about $1.3 billion to fund road construction projects, the level of bonding proposed by Walker has met sharp resistance among Republican lawmakers.
Lawmakers have held off on touching some of the budget's more controversial items, hoping the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau would project additional revenue growth in its updated May figures. But the LFB announced last week that Wisconsin is on track to see no additional revenue growth in the next two years, with growth still predicted at 3.7 percent as it was in January.
In light of that news, the first priority named by GOP legislators was to restore the proposed $127 million cut to K-12 education.
"That (revenue news) will make it a little more challenging for us," Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, told reporters last week. "But the commitment to fund K-12 will still be there."
"I think when we talk about this budget, it's a tough budget," said JFC co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. "We're doing our best to make sure that it's balanced, to make sure it's in the best interest of education and higher ed and Family Care and parks and forestry — a whole cadre of priorities in Wisconsin."
Republican leaders announced that they'll likely use an accounting maneuver to restore the K-12 funds, and said they have no plans to touch any previous tax cuts or to raise taxes.
The fate of the UW cut is still unknown. Republican legislators say they'd like to reduce it, but the revenue estimates make that difficult. Walker, for his part, said last week that the proposed cut is "manageable" and "realistic."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, noted that the governor wasn't changing his tune by making that statement.
"Well, he obviously believes that, because he introduced it in the budget, right?" Vos told reporters, adding that the Assembly Republican caucus would still like to reduce the size of the cut, but not having additional revenue "makes the decision a lot harder."
The same day, Walker and Vos clashed on transportation funding. Both Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, have raised the possibility of increasing vehicle registration fees to help fund transportation projects. But Walker opposes the idea.
Vos told reporters the Republican caucus is with him: legislators would rather pay for projects with new revenues than with bonding.
"It is certainly not more conservative to borrow and spend than it is to pay for things as you go," Vos said.
As the finance committee moves forward with budget discussions, legislators have said "everything is on the table."
“While the new state revenue numbers given to us ... were disappointing, my colleagues and I continue to seek ways to save funds and apply them to our priorities,” Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said in a statement. “The last several weeks, we have worked on low-hanging fruit — all of the things we could do without a clear picture of projected revenue — but now that we know where our numbers are, we will be more aggressively seeking ways to improve the funding for priority areas like education, and reduce spending in others.”
By addressing the "low-hanging fruit," the JFC has reduced all funds by $32.5 million, reduced general purpose revenue spending by $29 million and reduce the number of full-time positions by 33, Marklein said.
This week, JFC is set to meet on Tuesday and Thursday. Items on the agenda include the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, the Environmental Improvement Fund, mental health services, the Department of Children and Families, and shared revenue and tax relief. The committee will also take up a proposed cut to the Educational Communications Board, which operates Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
Democrats say Walker's budget abandons Wisconsin's priorities, and they blame the disappointing revenue estimates on policies enacted by the state government, controlled at all levels by Republicans.
"Everything the governor has said he has needed to jumpstart the economy ... it's not working," Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, told reporters. "None of it has worked."