In a shift from recent past practice, the Republican leader of the state Senate said Thursday he assumes GOP lawmakers will craft their own plan for the next state budget instead of building from what’s proposed by Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos also hinted at that possibility Thursday in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. Vos, R-Rochester, said whether Assembly Republicans build from Evers’ plan for the next budget could hinge on whether Evers proposes to raise taxes or expand Medicaid — both of which Assembly Republicans oppose.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he wouldn’t close the door on accepting the Medicaid expansion.
Evers’ office responded by noting he has been touring the state to hear what Wisconsinites want in the next state budget.
“It’s unfortunate that Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald are once again going to ignore the will of the people of Wisconsin by disregarding a budget crafted by and with the people of our state without ever having seen it,” Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said.
The exchange shows the debate over the state’s next two-year spending plan has already begun before Evers takes office in early January. It also underscores how contentious the process could be as leaders navigate a partisan split in control of state government for the first time in more than a decade.
In an interview, Vos drew a red line on tax increases, saying Assembly Republicans “are not going to raise income or sales taxes, period.”
“If (Evers) starts with a massive tax increase, well, that means his entire budget is built on a house of sand,” Vos said. “So we’ll have to sweep it away, and start all over with what we have said, which is we’re not going to raise taxes.”
Vos said the exception to his opposition to tax increases could be on vehicle fuel. He said he’s open to a gas-tax hike but would prefer highway tolling as a fix for state transportation funding.
During the 2018 campaign, Evers proposed cutting income taxes for low- and middle-income filers. He has not ruled out a tax increase for the wealthy or on vehicle fuel.
Fitzgerald spoke with reporters in his office at the state Capitol shortly after meeting with Evers, who takes office in January, to discuss legislative priorities for 2019.
Fitzgerald praised as a “great guy” and a “good pick” one of Evers’ early choices for his Cabinet — Joel Brennan, CEO of Milwaukee’s Discovery World and a former staffer for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who Evers has tapped to lead the state Department of Administration.
All Cabinet picks are subject to a majority confirmation vote in the Senate. Fitzgerald said he doesn’t know Evers’ pick to lead the Department of Natural Resources, Milwaukee city official and Natural Resources Board member Preston Cole.
Evers and lawmakers will start work in early 2019 on the next state budget in advance of a June 30 deadline to pass it.
Fitzgerald said he’s open to working with Evers on some of his budget priorities, such as cutting income taxes for low- and middle-income filers.
On Evers’ push to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin under the federal Affordable Care Act, Fitzgerald sounded a skeptical note — but also declined, when pressed repeatedly, to rule it out.
“I don’t see it right now,” Fitzgerald said. “But there’s a lot of moving parts, as we know. So I don’t want to be presumptuous.”
Wisconsin is in the minority of states in refusing to take the Medicaid expansion money. Thirty-five states have taken the money, and voters in three others approved the expansion in the November election.
Expanding Medicaid, the state-federal health coverage program for the very poor or disabled, could add 80,000 adult Wisconsinites to its coverage rolls starting in 2020. It also could tap nearly $200 million in federal funds for the state budget, which could make it more difficult for GOP opponents to reject it.
Fitzgerald also said he doesn’t think Senate Republicans will support legalizing medical marijuana, as Evers does.
“I don’t see it,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t support it.”
Fitzgerald said a budget deal with Evers “can be done” but said he has been discussing with Vos the prospect of GOP lawmakers crafting their own budget.
That’s a sign of the new dynamic at the state Capitol under divided government starting in January. For the last eight years GOP lawmakers used Gov. Scott Walker’s budgets as a starting point to craft the state’s two-year spending plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.