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.