Republican lawmakers are already contemplating changes to key provisions in Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year $68 billion budget proposal, which he introduced Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Wednesday that more borrowing for road projects, historic cuts to the University of Wisconsin System and flat funding for K-12 schools are the top concerns so far among caucus members.
“K-12 is always a concern,” Fitzgerald said. “You may even see them fund that before addressing the UW.”
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, which gets the first crack at rewriting Walker’s budget proposal, said there will be discussion of increasing the state’s $75 vehicle registration fee to reduce the $1.3 billion in borrowing for roads.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, also expressed concern about road borrowing during a panel discussion at a meeting of the Wisconsin Counties Association in Madison on Wednesday.
He said he wants the Legislature to consider raising vehicle registration fees based on miles driven in order to pay for roads.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he was glad to see a property tax reduction — Walker’s proposal spends more than $300 million to cut taxes on an average home by $5 in each of the next two years — but he wants to see funding reallocated to the UW System because “the cuts are too deep.”
Cowles also raised concerns about Walker’s proposal to drug-test public assistance beneficiaries, noting potential legal challenges to the idea.
“I’d hate to be spending money just to make a point,” Cowles said.
Vos also said he is worried that the $300 million cut to the UW System in exchange for more autonomy would make it more difficult for students to graduate in four years.
Walker defends ideas
Walker, who toured the state Wednesday visiting businesses in La Crosse, Eau Claire, Stevens Point, De Pere and Oconomowoc, pushed back against critics during a radio interview on WTMJ in Milwaukee.
He defended his proposal to give the UW more autonomy, which both Republicans and Democrats say could result in hefty tuition hikes after a proposed two-year tuition freeze expires.
He said when the governor and Senate approve future regents, they should make the appointment contingent on knowing where the appointee stands on various issues, including tuition hikes.
“The buck entirely stops with UW leadership,” said Walker, who is mulling a 2016 presidential bid.
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He also said he doesn’t regret his previous comments calling on university professors to teach an extra course per semester to help reduce costs.
Regarding Republican concerns about transportation borrowing going up 30 percent, which would put additional long-term strain on the transportation fund, Walker agreed “it is a concern, which is why I pushed a dramatic reduction in the total amount of state bonding.”
“When budgets are better in the future, when we’ve got some more revenues out there, there’s more things we can do,” he said.
For example, he said public transit, which is currently covered by the transportation fund, but doesn’t generate revenue for the fund like vehicle registration fees and the gas tax, could be funded through the general fund.
Walker’s Department of Transportation had recommended $750 million in higher taxes and fees, including on gasoline and vehicle registrations, to pay for roads.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the statewide chamber of commerce and a strong supporter of Walker and Republicans, had supported a modest gas tax increase. And on Wednesday, a coalition of more than 400 local governments, road builders and labor unions issued a statement criticizing Walker’s approach to funding roads.
“Investing in an adequately funded, sustainable and equitable approach cannot be reached with the current budget proposal,” the Transportation Development Alliance said in a statement.
Walker’s budget also would hold funding for public schools flat, while removing a cap on enrollment in the private school voucher program. Money to pay for new voucher students would come out of the budget of public schools that are losing students, and be prorated statewide based on applications instead of a set amount as it is now.
Voucher proponents said they were worried the new funding mechanism would lower the amount of the subsidy. Democrats, and state Superintendent Tony Evers, objected to both the program growing and the money being taken from public schools.
Quick passage not assured
Nygren said he expects the budget committee will wrap up its work by Memorial Day weekend, which is consistent with previous budget cycles.
“The governor wanted to do this quick,” Nygren said. “I told him it’s unlikely we could do it much faster than normal timeline.”
Over the next month, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau will be crunching the numbers. Nygren said he expects to hold hearings with agency and department heads in early March.
In mid-March, he plans to hold four public hearings, one each in the Fox Valley, southeast, southwest and northern regions of the state. Public hearings in Madison would be held in April.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.