WAUKESHA — Gov. Scott Walker signed the state’s 2015-17 budget Sunday, including more than 100 line-item changes to the version the Legislature adopted swiftly last week after several weeks of Republican gridlock.
“The difference between Wisconsin and Washington is we actually get things done,” Walker said Sunday evening to a crowd just before he signed the next Wisconsin state budget, and about 24 hours before he announces his bid for the White House.
Before signing the $72.7 billion spending plan, Walker used his powerful veto pen to alter 104 items — nearly twice as many as he has previously.
Walker’s third budget includes a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, though not the autonomy from Legislative oversight he originally proposed.
It also freezes college tuition for another two years, keeps aid to K-12 schools flat while expanding a statewide private-school voucher program, borrows $850 million for roads, opens the door to for-profit companies competing for long-term care contracts, increases park fees, cuts scientist positions at the Department of Natural Resources, increases a standard income tax deduction for married couples and repeals the prevailing wage for construction work on local government projects.
But among the vetoes, Walker eliminated a last-minute provision the Legislature’s budget committee added that would have expanded the types of services that payday lenders could provide. Another change removed language that would have only allowed drug testing of food stamp beneficiaries if the state had “reasonable suspicion” of drug use, potentially weakening the law if it’s challenged in court.
Walker also removed language that would have exempted the Hill Farms state office building redevelopment on Madison’s West Side from city zoning ordinances and required the Department of Administration to look outside Dane and Milwaukee counties for future state office leases. However, Walker said he is directing the department to “consider opportunities where leases could be made in counties outside of Dane or Milwaukee.”
In another veto, Walker cut language that he says would codify criteria for state tests given to public school students. Walker said the criteria are closely aligned “with national standards I oppose and which local school districts should not be mandated to adopt,” referring to the Common Core State Standards that Wisconsin adopted in 2010.
Walker went on to say local school boards should be able to adopt their own tests and standards. However, federal rules require all public school students in a state to take the same test, and local school boards already have the authority to adopt their own state standards in Wisconsin.
Walker’s vetoes reduce spending by $45 million over the next two years, which adds a tiny buffer to the state’s projected fund balance by the end of the biennium June 30, 2017. However, it would still be less than 1 percent of the state’s annual spending.
Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, noted before the last recession states had an average fund balance of about 8.5 percent. He also said national GDP projections have continued to fall, but the state hasn’t reduced its annual revenue growth projections of about 4 percent over the next two years.
“It’s just another typical Wisconsin state budget of the last 15 years where they tax and spend to the last penny and pray they don’t hit a recession,” Berry said.
When Walker introduced his budget, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected a nearly half-billion dollar structural surplus by mid-2019. Changes made by the Legislature’s budget committee swung that amount by nearly a billion dollars to a $490 million structural deficit. Berry said Walker’s vetoes don’t appear to erase that deficit, which will await lawmakers when they begin crafting a new budget in early 2017.
Jon Peacock, director of Wisconsin Budget Project, said the half-billion dollar deficit in the next budget could be worse if state agencies can’t return about $700 million a year to the state treasury, known bureaucratically as a “lapse,” as required by the budget. In past years, lapses were typically in the $250 million to $300 million range.
An hour before Walker was set to sign the budget, written entirely by Republicans, state Democrats took a podium in a Waukesha County labor hall to rail against a spending plan they described as a presidential campaign platform.
“The sad reality is that Governor Walker is throwing Wisconsin citizens under his campaign bus,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said.
Walker’s speech before signing the budget was short, emphasizing cornerstones of his tenure as governor like lowering property taxes, and expanding school vouchers.
“With this budget, the taxpayers come first,” Walker said. “I’m proud to say that property taxes in December of 2016 will be lower for a typical homeowner than they were in December of 2010. Who else can say that in America?”
Walker signed the two-year budget on the production floor of Waukesha’s Valveworks USA, a mining equipment manufacturer. The factory is just 10 minutes south of the county expo center where Walker will announce his bid for the presidency on Monday.
The budget came to Walker 12 days late, after a monthlong impasse, its final passage by the Assembly coming early Friday morning. Between the Senate and Assembly, 12 Republican lawmakers voted against it, more than any budget Walker has signed previously.
Walker has gone on the defensive about the impasse before, blaming media and opponents for creating a hysteria. He addressed the timing again on Sunday.
“In a moment this will be the fourth budget signed before July 19 since 1983,” he said.
With him at the bill signing were Republican lawmakers including Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.
The budget writing process, which Darling and Nygren oversaw, ended with a fury of criticism over measures passed at the tail end that would significantly diminish public scrutiny of lawmakers’ communications and the bill drafting process. The measures were introduced in a late addition to the budget known as the 999 motion.
While speaking to reporters after the budget signing, Darling said she was not in favor of such an expansive motion coming at the end of a budget writing process. “I would like not to have that as part of our budget,” she said.