In another sign of trouble for Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to borrow more and delay road construction projects, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee announced Thursday it would start its negotiations from scratch rather than from the governor’s road-funding proposal.
The procedural decision announced by co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee is significant because it means they are ignoring Walker’s much-criticized approach to solving a projected $1 billion Department of Transportation shortfall. The panel could still go along with Walker’s call to borrow half a billion dollars and delay projects to plug the gap, but it will be harder than the usual practice of working off the governor’s proposal.
Doing what Walker wants on roads will now require a majority vote to add it to the budget, rather than a majority vote to remove it. That is an unusual break from tradition, and especially noteworthy that the 16-member committee is controlled by Republicans — the same party as Walker.
Walker, in a prepared statement, ignored the committee’s decision to remove his roads plan and cut dozens of other proposals. Instead, he thanked them for not changing — for now — his plan to increase funding for K-12 schools by $649 million.
While the move is unusual, it’s not completely unexpected given that Republican lawmakers have been vocal in their dislike of Walker’s budget in numerous areas — in particular the road plan.
Road builders, business leaders and others have been calling for the Legislature to come up with a long-term funding solution for Wisconsin roads that will keep major construction projects moving forward and not result in significant new borrowing.
Assembly Republican leaders have been calling for Walker to consider raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, but Walker has promised to veto any such hikes. That’s divided Republican legislative leaders, with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos promising an override vote and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald saying he would not attempt an override.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor remains “open to many different options” to pay for roads, as long as there is no gas tax increase.
In all other areas of the $76 billion budget the committee will be starting from what Walker proposed and making changes from there.
Committee co-chairs also identified 83 policy items in the budget they are removing, meaning they will have to take the more difficult route of passing as stand-alone bills rather than being a part of the massive budget.
Some of the removed Walker proposals include:
- Allowing University of Wisconsin students to opt out of paying some fees. Walker argued that would give students more of a voice in what they wanted to spend their fees on, but student groups pushed back saying it could reduce revenue used to buy student bus passes, bring events to campus and fund student organizations.
- Forcing UW campuses to develop a plan to track the hours that faculty are teaching and reward those who teach more. Faculty feared that the move would devalue research and other work they do outside the classroom.
- Requiring UW campuses to be committed to “free and open inquiry on all matters.” The so-called “freedom of expression” provision raised concerns among some who said it would actually lead to silencing some speech, such as protests over offensive comments.
- Requiring University of Wisconsin bachelor’s degree candidates to have an internship or work experience in order to graduate. While praised by some, critics questioned how it could work in saturated job markets or in parts of the state where internship and employment opportunities are limited.
- Deleting a required minimum hours of teaching in public and private charter and voucher schools. The move would have made Wisconsin the only state in the country without a minimum teaching hour requirement, and critics worried it could lead to unintended consequences.
- Requiring private voucher schools to conduct a background check on teachers.
- Repealing the state prevailing wage for state building and highway projects.