Tag Archives: biennial budget

Republicans defy Walker’s school-funding cut but support increase in voucher schools

The Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee approved a wide-reaching education agenda that would increase funding for public schools, undo enrollment caps on the private school voucher program, create a special needs voucher and target certain low-performing schools for takeover.

The 12-4 vote on education issues in the two-year budget, with all Republicans in support and Democrats against, came at the end of five hours of debate. Republicans broke with Gov. Scott Walker on several key issues, including by reversing a $127 million cut to public schools in the first year.

The Joint Finance Committee was expected to wrap up its votes on the entire budget next week, before sending the entire plan to the full Senate and Assembly for consideration. Walker, a likely presidential candidate, has said he won’t announce a White House bid until after he signs the budget, likely in late June.

Democrats railed against the education plan, and prolonged the debate for hours by introducing a series of motions to alter the plan, all of which were rejected.

“It’s not going to be Armageddon for public schools tomorrow, but we’re on that road,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, speaking against the plan.

At times the rhetoric was heated. Democrat Lena Taylor said the Republican-backed voucher school program has “raped” the students of Milwaukee Public Schools by taking millions of dollars away from the district.

The comparison drew a sharp rebuke from Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield.

“I just find that sick,” he said. “That’s actually sick.”

Under the proposal as adopted by the committee, a $127 million cut Walker proposed in public school funding next year would be undone. While Walker’s budget held aid for public schools flat over two years, the new plan would increase funding by $100 per student, or about $69 million, above current levels in the second year.

Walker had proposed eliminating the 1,000-student enrollment cap on the statewide private school voucher program, but proponents objected because the way he funded it would have lowered the amount of the payment to students.

The budget committee voted to eliminate the cap, and instead limit participation to no more than 1 percent of a district’s total enrollment. That would increase by 1 percentage point a year for a decade until there would be no cap.

If 1 percent of all roughly 794,000 public school students outside of Milwaukee took a voucher, about 8,000 students would be in the program. This year there were 1,000 students in the two-year-old statewide program and about 1,700 in Racine, where vouchers began in 2011.

The program, modeled after open enrollment for public schools, is estimated to cost public schools about $48 million over the next two years.

Creating a special needs voucher program, funded similar to the regular program with money coming out of aid to public schools, drew opposition from a coalition of disabilities rights groups. They have long opposed the move, saying students won’t have the same rights in private schools they’re guaranteed in public schools.

Special needs vouchers “are not correlated with improved outcomes for students and every proposal introduced to date has lacked any meaningful accountability for either parents or taxpayers,” the coalition said.

But Republican supporters said it was all about giving parents choices about where to send their children.

“The sky is not falling,” said Rep. Mary Czaja, R-Irma. “The sun will come up tomorrow morning. This is just one more option for parents.”

Another part of the plan would give control of the worst-performing Milwaukee Public Schools to a commissioner appointed by the county executive who could then convert them into independent charter or private voucher schools. The plan would also apply to other districts with more than 15,000 students that meet certain criteria, including having the lowest rating on school report cards two years in a row.

Kudos to Wisconsin Republicans for standing up to Scott Walker’s wrecking-ball budget

We often use this space to criticize the Republican Party of Wisconsin for putting the interests of its wealthy supporters above those of voters. So it’s with pleasure that we acknowledge the integrity a number of GOP lawmakers have shown in standing up to Gov. Scott Walker’s wrecking-ball of a budget.

To clarify, WiG does not support the budget in its current state, and no one knows exactly what the final budget will look like when it comes to a vote in early June. Between now and then, there will be a lot of horse-trading on budgetary items.

But we applaud the wrangling. In 2011, Walker presented a drastic budget that his Republican majority rubber-stamped without debate or analysis. The results were disastrous.

This year, confronted with a budget that’s even more destructive, GOP leaders have balked. They’ve listened to thousands of Wisconsinites who’ve turned out for public hearings and listening sessions on the budget and they’ve concluded that some of its key proposals would cause great harm to the state without providing in return a sustainable solution for resolving Walker’s self-created budget crisis.

GOP lawmakers have learned a lot by listening: that Wisconsinites value education over tax rebates for already profitable corporations; that citizens treasure our natural resources and want them maintained for future generations; that people across the political spectrum are outraged over Walker’s proposal to eliminate popular grassroots programs enabling the elderly and disabled to remain in their homes. (That last proposal will not save the state a dollar and has already cost Wisconsin 700 jobs, but it frees up millions for Walker to award to his for-profit insurance industry cronies.)

Polling has confirmed voter resistance to key budget proposals. A Marquette University Law School poll found 70 percent oppose Walker’s plan to cut University of Wisconsin funding by $300 million, while only 26 percent support it. The poll found 78 percent oppose Walker’s plan to reduce funding for K-12 schools by another $127 million. Sixty percent of those polled oppose Walker’s plan to make the Department of Natural Resources an advisory board — a plan that Republicans in the Legislature have already stripped from the budget.

And 54 percent of voters oppose Walker’s plan eliminating enrollment limits in the private school voucher program, another item that GOP lawmakers have already said will not be adopted as proposed.

To their credit and the state’s benefit, GOP legislative leaders have indicated that none of these proposals will be enacted as proposed. And they will succeed: Walker is eager to move forward with his presidential campaign and he’s not likely to risk a protracted, high-profile battle over positions that appeal only to fringe-right Republican Iowa caucus voters.

In an aside, GOP legislators also appear poised to prevent a repeal of the state’s “prevailing wage” law. Enacted in 1931, the law ensures that government contractors must pay standard wages to workers, which prevents underbidding on projects by businesses that don’t pay for skilled labor. The result is shoddy public works, fewer consumer dollars circulating in the economy and downward pressure on the pay scale for everyone.

For the first time since Walker took office, we see meaningful bipartisan dialogue occurring in Madison. It appears that Republican lawmakers are seriously considering input from the other of the aisle.

To be sure, the state has far to go in bridging the political divide created by Walker’s self-professed “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Gerrymandering has given the Republicans an ironclad majority, an unhealthy political situation that enables autocratic rule.

But just as we’re experiencing the first mild breezes of spring, we can sense something of a thaw in Madison that gives us hope.

Republicans and Dems united in opposition to Walker’s budget

Republicans and Democrats are both lined up in opposition to many of the key items in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s $68-billion budget proposal. 

Bipartisan resistance is growing to Walker’s plans to borrow $1.3 billion to pay for road construction and infrastructure projects, cut $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, and pay for an expansion of the private school voucher program by taking money from public schools while holding their funding flat.

Walker’s budget also requires drug testing for public benefit recipients, which has proven costly in some states and ruled unconstitutional in others. The budget eliminates 400 state government positions, slashes funds for public broadcasting and weakens environmental oversight.

Walker says his plan offers bold ideas to reshape government, which is the emerging theme of his fledgling presidential campaign. Throughout the first month of his second term, Walker has been largely missing in Madison as he travels the country to court big-bucks conservative donors, meet with right-wing national leaders and build his name recognition among tea party supporters.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature’s GOP leadership is balking about the budget Walker is asking them to approve. They’ve been particularly outspoken about increasing borrowing by 30 percent to pay for highway projects, the majority of which are unnecessary, according to traffic studies.

“The biggest heartburn I have in regards to the proposed budget is the amount of bonding,” said budget committee member Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst. “I know there’s a number of my colleagues who are quite concerned about that.”

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 and Commerce and other corporate-right groups had supported a modest gas tax increase.

But deferring, perhaps, to the anti-tax tea party voters who dominate Republican primaries, Walker nixed all tax or fee increases in favor of issuing bonds that won’t come due until he’s long gone. That drew criticism more than 400 local governments, road builders and labor unions.

Republicans also are joining Democrats in questioning Walker’s $300 million cut to UW, which amounts to 13 percent of the system’s budget. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the cut would create a $91-million budget hole at the system’s flagship school. Vos has said he’s worried the cut will make it more difficult for students to graduate in four years.

Along with his budget cut, Walker has proposed to give the system’s 26 campuses more autonomy and freedom from state laws and oversight, something university officials have lobbied for years to get. Although university officials have better received that part of the plan, many observers fear that it would embolden tuition hikes that would make college in the state less affordable than it already is.

UW-Madison faculty and staff planned to stage a rally and march on Feb. 14 to protest Walker’s proposed cuts to the UW System. The event, “Stop the Cuts — Save UW,” was set to begin at noon on the Library Mall. The Overpass Light Brigade planned a separate action at 6 p.m., when the group will spell out protest messages in lights.

While cutting UW funding, Walker’s budget would hold funding for public schools flat, while removing a 1,000-student cap on the private-school voucher program. Going forward, the program would be available to students transferring in from public schools at any point, and also private school students entering kindergarten, the first grade or ninth grade. Money to pay for it would come from state aid sent to the schools losing the student.

No increase in funding for schools amounts to a cut because they won’t be able to keep up with growing expenses, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers. And, he added, taking money away from schools to pay for voucher students only compounds the problem, Evers said.

Democrats have criticized Walker and Republicans for using a previous surplus to pay for nearly $2 billion in tax cuts primarily benefiting corporations and the very wealthy over the past four years. Those tax cuts helped fuel the current budget gap.

With the budget now introduced, the debate now shifts to the Legislature, where lawmakers will spend the next four months working over Walker’s proposal before voting on it likely sometime in June.

Meanwhile, Walker will spend the coming months on the presidential campaign trail.

Follow the road your tax dollars take to politicos’ pockets

In the Republicans’ 2011–13 biennial budget, funding was slashed in every major category, including education and health care, with one notable exception: transportation.

The GOP slashed school aid by more than $800 million, while transportation spending rose by $400 million. The increases were earmarked overwhelmingly for road builders.

If you think the money was used to fix potholes and repave bumpy local streets that keep throwing your wheels out of alignment, think again. The lion’s share of transportation dollars were virtual giveaways for road builders who write huge checks to the party in power – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.

Sixty-three percent of state transportation funding in the 2011–13 budget went to highway building and only 13 percent supported local road improvements, despite the fact that local roads account for 90 percent of the roads in Wisconsin. Eighty-four percent of all transportation bonding goes to highways, according to Hiniker.

“In 2001, highway miles driven in the state were very close to what they were in 2011, but the expenditures on expanding highways has gone up by about 60 percent,” Hiniker said. “If people aren’t driving more, why are we building more?”

The answer is that some of the dollars spent on bogus highway projects find their way into campaign coffers. Critics contend the situation amounts to money laundering – a means of allowing taxpayer dollars to be converted legally into political donations.

Hiniker is raising the issue now because Gov. Scott Walker wants to ratchet up highway spending by $688 million in the 2013–15 state budget. Since he’s completely tapped out the transportation fund, Walker is asking legislators to shift the cost of highway construction to the general fund. That means political payoffs to road builders will come from the same funding source that provides aid to schools and medical care for the poor.

“By transferring the costs of transit from the transportation fund to the general fund, the governor effectively borrows an additional $107 million from the general fund in the second year of the biennium (budget),” Hiniker said. “Using these funds to build more roads when the transportation fund doesn’t have the money to take care of existing roads means that even more general funds will be needed to maintain the new roads.” 

Walker proposed the transfer to the general fund in the last budget, but legislators nixed it. Hiniker hopes an outcry of protest from the public will prevent Walker’s attempt in the next budget as well.

Interestingly, the Legislature has approved language for a constitutional amendment that would wall off the transportation fund for non-transportation purposes but did nothing to protect the general fund from raids for transportation purposes.

Most people wrongly assume that their gasoline taxes fund highway construction. In truth, gas taxes have not risen since 1993, so the burden for unnecessary highway projects is borne mostly by property tax payers.

“It’s time to recognize that highways are no longer even close to paying for themselves. We should either cut highway spending or make the tough decisions to raise revenues.”

At the same time Walker wants to put more money into the coffers of road builders, he’s slashing public transportation funding. One of his first acts as governor was turning down federal dollars to build a high-speed railway linking Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as Milwaukee and Madison. In addition to creating new jobs, the system would have increased economic activity by more efficiently linking the region’s major cities.

More recently, the GOP-controlled Legislature changed the rules surrounding financing for a rudimentary light-rail system for Milwaukee. The new rules would make the project prohibitively expensive. Other cities have found that such systems stimulate real-estate investments and bring increased economic activity to the neighborhoods they serve – both of which the state’s largest city and major economic generator could sorely use.

Public transit cuts

Although lawmakers scored brownie points with the road builders and fossil fuel companies that contribute money to them, the Legislature’s opposition to public transportation is out of synch with the times.  Young people and the state’s increasingly graying population are demanding more of it. They don’t want to be totally dependent on cars.

Many cities that are thriving economically are investing not only in public transportation but also in bike trails and lanes, another strategy that Wisconsin Republicans strongly oppose.

“We have a $3 billion transportation budget and we can’t shuffle things around so that $10 million can go for transit?” Hiniker asked. “It’s so insignificant. It’s 0.3 percent of the transportation budget.  Why are these guys so adamantly against it?”

Walker and other Republicans contend that public transit ridership is down. But Hiniker said that’s a situation they’ve purposely created.

“They cut transit service and raise fares.  As a result, they lose riders. Then they say, ‘There are fewer riders, so let’s cut it some more,’” Hiniker explained.

“The road builders never want to see passenger rail come in and siphon away highway dollars,” Hiniker added. “Meanwhile, it’s the job of lawmakers to get reelected. They have to get money, and the road builders have it. Local transit and mayors don’t, so they follow the money. It’s the way the political economy works.”

(Editor’s note: WiG’s CEO is a supporter of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin.)

Screen_shot_2013-05-18_at_3.02.29_PM

Pay-to-play limits public transit funding

When it comes to getting where she has to go, Jamecca Cohee, 30, relies on the Milwaukee County Public Transit System for “everything, every day – Monday through Sunday,” she says.

The inner-city mother of three uses the bus for getting to work, shopping and taking her kids to school. Public transportation also takes her family to medical appointments, to visit relatives and to church.

In recent years, Cohee and other public transit riders have contended with continual rate increases, ever-longer wait times between buses and decreasing passenger safety. Every two years when biennial state budget talks draw near, they face threats of yet higher rates and further service reductions.

On Dec. 3, Cohee participated in a “community listening session” on Milwaukee’s public transit crisis, held at the Washington Park Senior Center. The event’s purpose was “to provide a place for people who rely on public transportation to be able to demonstrate why they rely on it,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, economic justice director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Her group is one of many that have joined forces to get the Assembly to create a funding mechanism for safe, reliable and affordable public transportation for people who can’t drive – a group composed mostly of the poor, elderly and disabled.

The event was titled “Still Fighting for a Seat on the Bus,” a reference to Rosa Parks’ history-changing refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955. Advocates say public transit users are still victims of racism, because they are largely people of color whose transportation needs are wholly overlooked by lawmakers. At the same time, leaders of both parties in Madison lavish public funding on highway construction, much of which is demonstrably unnecessary.

The ACLU of Wisconsin, one of the event’s sponsors, also is part of a lawsuit filed in August to force the state to reconsider spending $1.7 billion on the reconstruction of Milwaukee’s so-called “Zoo Interchange” while slashing budgets for mass transit and road maintenance, such as filling in potholes.

“When our government makes decisions that disproportionately impact a certain group of people, particularly by race, we have to go through the courts to shine light on that,” says Stacy Harbaugh, communication director for the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our tax dollars are for all of us to use, but Milwaukee is taking money away from the people who need it the most.”

The ACLU and Midwest Environmental Advocates contend that WisDot overlooked federal laws mandating that the allocation of federal transportation dollars must take into account a proposed project’s impact on the environment as well as on communities of color – neither of which WisDot did in its Zoo Interchange planning, Epps-Addison says. (Typically, 75 to 90 percent of interstate road funding comes from the federal government.)

The Zoo Interchange improvements will benefit commuters to the lily-white – and blood red – suburb of Waukesha. Although that fast-growing area is home to many new jobs, it is almost impenetrable for people who don’t drive – and the majority of people who live there aim to keep it that way, according to public transit advocates. It’s not by chance that the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, a quasi-governmental organization, is headquartered and holds its public meetings in Waukesha.

The suit was filed on behalf of MICAH and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

But the Zoo Interchange case is only one of many highway projects that suck money away from public transportation funding. Only about 6.5 percent of the state’s annual transportation dollars were allocated for public transit under the 2011-13 biennial budget, and Republicans want to push that number even lower, according to Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. He estimated that only $212 million of the $3.3 billion allocated for transportation in the state this year went to public transit.

Many drivers believe that public transportation should have to pay for itself, arguing that their gas taxes pay for the roads they use. But that’s just a myth perpetrated by Big Oil and highway builders. In 2009, a national commission estimated that fuel taxes and other user fees accounted for less than 60 percent of transportation system revenue.

The majority of funding for public transit, as well as highway and airport costs, comes from property and other taxes from the general fund that people are forced to pay into whether they drive, fly or take the bus. 

Politics drives roads

Although Wisconsin highways appear to be among the least congested in the nation, fast travel times have failed to slake state lawmakers’ thirst for road building. In fact, even though highway traffic leveled off in 2004 – and is projected to remain near constant through 2023 – proposals for new roads and highway improvements continue to multiply. The reason is that massive amounts of public money are at stake, and highway builders pay lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle handsomely for the chance to stuff some of that money in their pockets. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s family and countless other politically connected families have become millionaires giving legislators money in exchange for lucrative road-building projects, whether those projects are needed or not.

“The people who build the highways have taken complete control of the state highway budget,” Hiniker says. “They’re essentially the highest paid state employees.”

Hiniker describes the state’s highway builders as a perpetual bipartisan lobbying machine. “In Wisconsin, the road builders have the strongest lock of any state that I’ve seen,” he says.

He says the scenario works like this: Road builders get rich off projects paid for by taxpayers. The builders then use their taxpayer-generated wealth to lobby and contribute to elected officials, who in turn reward them with more projects.

“The taxpayers are subsidizing the political contributions that road builders give to candidates who promise them more money to build more roads,” Hiniker summarizes.

Wisconsin ranks 13th in the nation on highway spending per capita – or 24 percent above the national average, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group. The actual need for building a particular highway project in Wisconsin is only a secondary consideration. The more pressing concern for lawmakers is the projected payout, according to public transit advocates.

As a result, Wisconsin is laced with “highways to nowhere.” For instance, there’s the $25 million interchange project in a cornfield 30 miles west of Milwaukee to provide easier access to a failed development called “Pabst Farms.” The development was never built due to the real estate crash, but that didn’t stop Gov. Scott Walker from pushing funding forward shortly after turning down $800 million in federal dollars for a high-speed rail project.

There’s a proposed $140 million project to widen Highway 23 in a rural area between Plymouth and Fond du Lac that would shorten drive times by no more than four minutes for the relatively small number of users, according to traffic studies. That project is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.

Despite the waste such projects represent, they are inevitably backed by local newspapers and positioned by local leaders as job creators. In reality, the lion’s share of jobs created by such projects goes to out-of-state planners, vendors and workers, analysts say.

Transit advocacy

Until recently, public transit riders had few champions and, in a political system in which money commands attention, almost no influence. Milwaukee residents like Cohee simply can’t compete with the rich special interests that drive the planning process.

Milwaukee has no regional transit authority to raise money and conduct local public transportation planning.

But the groups that organized the Dec. 3 listening session have joined with other grassroots progressive groups to change the power dynamic. They already flexed their muscle dramatically in the 2012 general election. Cohee was part of a program called “Ride and Register,” in which she and other transit users registered voters on the bus. They also asked their fellow riders to volunteer to fight for public transit funding and to get people to the polls.

Epps-Addison says the project yielded 700 rides to the polls on Election Day and created a base of supporters to lobby lawmakers on public transit funding. The project was a partnership between Citizens Action and the Transit Riders Union.

Gary Goyke, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Urban and Rural Transit Association, says that public transit advocates are “in a better position” this year than last, when it took some last-minute creative funding by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to save Milwaukee from 30-percent cuts in mass transit. As a result, in 2013 there will be no fare increases or route cuts in Milwaukee County.

“We are determined,” Goyke says. “We are not going to give up.”

Good for business

Goyke says Walker has created a transportation commission that understands the benefits of public transit for the business sector and “is acknowledging that it erred in the past and is not going to take public transit out of the transportation fund” – as Walker sought to do in the last budget. Goyke says he’s encouraged by the selection of Mark Gottlieb, a Milwaukeean, as secretary of the Department of Transportation.

In their efforts, public transportation advocates hope to benefit from the passion of new and recently elected representatives from Milwaukee, including Goyke’s son Evan Goyke. Chris Larson, the new Senate minority leader, and others introduced a bill last January called the Workforce Mobility Act.

“Of the 140,000 rides provided daily by the Milwaukee County Transit Systems, 39 percent are commuters traveling to and from work – and for many this is their only feasible transit option,” Larson said. “The demand for viable transportation options is clearly there and we owe it to our workers and local businesses to provide the necessary support to our public transit infrastructure.”

While unpopular with the current leaders in Madison, public transit is widely recognized as the wave of the future across the country – and around the globe. Nationally, transit trips have far outpaced the growth of auto miles since 1995, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

Public transit is simply more sensible, its advocates say. According to their statistics, it saves 3.4 billion gallons of oil each year in the United States, prevents 541 million hours of traffic delay and reduces global warming pollution by 26 million tons.

“Ultimately, it’s the demographics that will change things,” says WisPRIG executive director Bruce Speight. “The demand for transit is exploding. If you build an infrastructure that is unfriendly to young people and old people, they will leave. Right now (Republican leaders) are building an infrastructure for the white middle class in the suburbs – for a disappearing status quo.

“The state of Wisconsin went for Obama and Baldwin. More votes were cast for Democrats than Republicans in state races … despite unprecedented voter suppression. The Republicans are holding on now through gerrymandering, but unless they get real with their policies, they’re not going to be able to hold on to their seats even in a gerrymandered state.”