In a likely unprecedented move, the State Building Commission failed Wednesday to recommend any of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ $2.5 billion in proposed capital budget projects after Republicans voted them down one by one.
The series of 82 deadlocked votes cast further doubt on the fate of statewide building renovations, upgrades and expansions proposed in Evers’ budget and served as the starkest illustration yet of how the state budget process will grind to a halt under divided government.
Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, made a motion to submit the entire projects list to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee without any recommendations from the commission. The committee, with four Republicans and four Democrats, including Evers, deadlocked 4-4, causing the motion to fail.
After Swearingen’s motion, the commission voted on whether to send each of the 80 individual projects on to the committee individually, a process that took about three hours. All of the projects that passed unanimously in subcommittee meetings earlier this week failed to receive a recommendation on a split vote.
The commission hasn’t failed to forward a recommendation to the budget committee in at least the 48 years since Legislative Fiscal Bureau director Bob Lang has worked on state budgets. The commission was formed 70 years ago, but didn’t oversee state bonding until 1969.
The move means the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee will craft a budget without the usual bipartisan guidance. Historically, there may have been some disagreement on individual projects, but the commission has made bipartisan recommendations based on the governor’s proposal for decades, including under previous divided governments.
“Disappointed is an understatement,” Evers said. “Delaying this will cost the state of Wisconsin more money.”
Swearingen and other Republicans on the commission cited concern for the high level of borrowing associated with Evers’ request, about $2 billion of which would come from state taxpayer-supported bonding. Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 capital budget was about a third of what Evers has requested.
Evers’ request includes projects such as $30 million for redevelopment of the Alliant Energy Center in Dane County, upgrades to Camp Randall Stadium, a cancer research facility in Milwaukee and housing for juvenile inmates. Close to half of the proposed money would go to upgrades and renovations at University of Wisconsin System facilities, many of which have gone without repairs for years.
“This doesn’t diminish our need, which is 60 percent of our buildings are over 45 years old,” UW System President Ray Cross said on the lack of a recommendation. “And it doesn’t help in the attraction of students or preventing safety issues, which those risks only get worse.”
He said the UW System looks forward to working with the Legislature because “they understand our needs.”
During the commission meeting in the governor’s conference room, Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, and Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, read aloud each project description. They often asked administration officials within the room to describe current conditions of a building or what delaying a project would mean in terms of increased construction cost further down the road.
A $1 million project at Yellowstone Lake State Park in western Wisconsin would replace showers no longer in operation and address a nonfunctional septic system.
“Sounds horrible,” Evers said of the facility’s condition.
The motion failed 4-4.
Evers said voting against UW projects that include money from donors could influence fundraising efforts.
“For us not to do the stamp of approval, it sends a message that everything’s up in the air,” Billings said. “I think that does say something.”
Republicans on the commission said they supported some projects, but they refused to vote in favor of any.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in the position we’re in,” said Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point.
“I’ll continue to fight for this project,” he said, referring to a Wisconsin Rapids revitalization and economic development project that would transform a building into a job training facility. The project falls within his district.
Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan said that Republicans’ previous support for these types of projects, sudden reversal on Wednesday and pledged future support “shows a little bit of the lunacy of some of the discussion that’s gone on today.”
Republican legislative leaders sent Evers a letter earlier Wednesday calling his proposed $2 billion in borrowing “unrealistic and unsustainable.”
Both Republicans and Democrats accused the other party of not wanting bipartisanship.
“To not move forward with recommendations is kind of backwards,” Ringhand said. “Quite frankly, I’m feeling a little irritated that we’re taking this path.”
Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said not enough time was provided to vet the projects and that Evers led the meeting in a “divisive” way by not working with the Legislature.
“We’re certainly going to make capital investments, but we’re going to do it in a reasonable way, so I guess that’s part of the debate moving forward,” he said. “I think it’s kind of silly to get hung up on that today, but that’s part of what people do.”