Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a $68 billion two-year spending plan Tuesday night that calls for a sweeping expansion of private school vouchers, consolidating control over environmental regulation and natural resources, sharp cuts for the University of Wisconsin System and defunding public television and radio.
They’re the kind of “go big and go bold” ideas that Walker has promised as he lays the groundwork for a 2016 presidential run.
“I worry that too many of our fellow citizens feel that dream has become out of reach for them and their families. The budget plan we present tonight will help restore that American Dream right here in Wisconsin,” Walker said in his 25-minute speech. “Our plan is based on growth and opportunity — which leads to freedom and prosperity for all.”
The proposal calls for borrowing $1.3 billion for road projects, rather than increasing the gas tax and other fee increases to address a long-term transportation shortfall. It cuts property taxes by $5 for the average value home in each of the next two years, but otherwise makes no major changes to the tax system. It holds school funding levels flat, and cuts 400 state positions; about half of them have been vacant for a year or more.
Walker previously revealed the UW System cuts and he had publicly expressed a desire to expand vouchers. But the proposal revealed new plans to make major changes at the Department of Natural Resources — including the elimination of a number of scientists’ jobs and putting off new land purchases for more than a dozen years — and to defund Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
Officials at WPT and WPR did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.
The 2015-17 budget proposal addresses a projected $2 billion shortfall, a figure that included agency requests, most notably through the UW cut, but also through myriad smaller cuts throughout state government, such as the consolidation of a handful of agencies. It also brings Dane County into a statewide program for the developmentally disabled and elderly.
The Republican governor’s speech continued connecting his Wisconsin ideas to a national platform, a theme he has been hitting since his re-election speech in November.
“Our reforms will also improve programs that provide assistance to people in times of need. Here in Wisconsin, we help folks facing financial challenges,” he said. “For those who are able, however, these programs should be a temporary safety net — not a hammock.”
Walker has repeatedly said he is committed to not raising taxes, and the budget includes a modest property tax cut — one that will amount to about $5 in savings for a median value home each year.
“Just as I promised, property taxes by the end of 2016 will be lower than they were in 2014,” Walker said. “That means lower property taxes for six years in a row. How about that?”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the property tax remains a “huge burden,” but he acknowledged Walker’s proposal represents “an attempt to keep (property taxes) at an even zero” rather than a significant reduction.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said Walker’s proposal for cutting taxes, by adding about $211 million to the school levy credit, “is a serious problem in my mind” because “it goes to the wealthier property value districts and nothing goes to schools.”
Walker rejected tax and fee increases suggested by his transportation secretary and instead proposed balancing the state’s transportation budget by borrowing $1.3 billion for roads and infrastructure. That’s an increase from about $1 billion in the current budget. Total borrowing is $1.6 billion, down from $2 billion in the current budget.
Fitzgerald said he’s uncomfortable with the borrowing level for roads and that it’s too early to rule out a vehicle registration fee increase.
“We either have to increase revenues or start cutting projects, and this Legislature may go there,” he said.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said Walker’s $300 million proposed cut to the UW System, which represents about 13 percent of state support and 2.5 percent of overall UW funding, would hurt students and taxpayers.
“It would jeopardize the investment by Wisconsin taxpayers who have created a world-class institution in UW-Madison. It would hurt our students by increasing class sizes, reducing program offerings and potentially lengthening the time to graduation,” Blank said in a statement. “And it may provide less access for Wisconsin students to the state’s flagship university.”
The governor also called for an expansion of voucher schools and drug testing for public assistance recipients. He also wants to require able-bodied adults who receive food stamps to be enrolled in an employment and training program.
With his budget proposal, Walker is “doing a beautiful job” of keeping his feet in both worlds of state and national politics, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.
Walker has continued to avoid raising taxes, covered health care for low-income people without accepting the federal Medicaid expansion, continued to streamline state government and injected free-market principles into public education, Burden noted.
“That works really well with voters in Wisconsin and works especially well with Republican activists who will be key players in the nomination,” Burden said.
Democrats railed against Walker’s proposals. State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a member of the budget committee, called Walker “the most anti-public education governor in the country.”
“Like the last budget, Gov. Walker’s proposed budget leaves the people of Wisconsin behind, hurts our economy and shortchanges our children and the bright future they all deserve,” Taylor said. “We should be helping create the American dream for the people of this state, not destroying it.”
But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, praised Walker’s agenda.
“I think that if you look at the priorities that he has laid out for our state focusing on economic development, reforming government, trying to ensure that government lives within its means by helping families, that’s the exact set of priorities that all of us agree with,” Vos said.
Walker’s plan includes an operating budget of $68.3 billion for the two-year period if all funding sources are included. That figure includes about $32.8 billion in state money known as general purpose revenue.
In his speech, Walker did not address his proposed cuts to Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio.
The state funding decrease amounts to about $2.5 million annually, Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
She added that the budget preserves state support for Amber Alert and other emergency functions that the Educational Communications Board, which oversees WPT and WPR, carries out. And she said the administration believes the board will be able to make up the difference in program revenue through grants, gifts and private donations.
“It’s important to note that nearly all programming costs are currently covered by program revenues, which include membership dues to PBS and NPR, and funding for their programming,” Patrick said.
She added that less than 10 percent of programming costs were funded by the state in fiscal year 2014.