Legislators sharpen shears for Walker budget

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NO WISCONSIN legislator campaigned last year on using $16 million of the state’s $42-million settlement from the national VW emission-cheating scandal to buy new state government vehicles.

But buying $16 million worth of cars, trucks and specialized vehicles is part of the two-year budget that Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed last week.

WALKER’S budget also called for using the remaining $26 million from the VW settlement to buy new Milwaukee County Transit System buses — another idea that surprised legislators. That would help “a region deemed to be in need of air quality improvement,” Walker aides said.

As part of that deal, Milwaukee County government, led by County Executive Chris Abele, would have to repay state government $1.95 million a year for 10 years.

The reasoning behind those two purchases is simple: Use one-time cash for one-time purchases.

But Wisconsin legislators have a history of using one-time cash to pay monthly bills — economic stimulus money from Washington and the tobacco settlement, for example.

SO LOOK for Republican legislative leaders to ignore Walker’s plans for the $42 million. And new Milwaukee County buses have not even been a priority of Democrats representing the City of Milwaukee.

The larger point: More than any of the three other budgets Walker has submitted since taking office in January 2011, Republican legislators are poised to rewrite major parts of this one.

Besides questioning several of Walker’s major initiatives — cutting UW System resident undergraduate tuition by 5% in the 2018-19 academic year, and having state government self-insure for health care on Jan. 1 — GOP leaders worry that his budget spends so much in the next two years that it would be unsustainable in the following budget cycle.

HERE’S what really makes number crunchers in the Legislature’s CPA caucus frown: According to the official summary of Walker’s budget, it would take a net surplus of $388 million on June 30 of this year, spend that down to $7.7 million by mid-2019, and create a potential deficit of $267 million by mid-2020.

Although a footnote explains that the potential $267 million deficit assumes no growth in state tax collections, general-fund spending in the governor’s budget — $34.5 billion, or 5% more than the current budget — has CPA caucus members privately saying, “What about ‘no’ do you not understand?”

SENATE Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issued a diplomatic response to those cash-flow numbers. “I plan to exercise caution in determining how to allocate these resources.”

But Fitzgerald also said his members are asking whether state government can afford the governor’s plan to add $649 million in spending on K-12 schools. If approved, it would bring K-12 spending by mid-2019 to $11.5 billion — or 35% of all general-fund tax collections over that period.

The head of the Assembly’s CPA caucus, Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga, was careful to not condemn any specific Walker proposal. Instead, he listed his generic top three goals for the 2017-19 budget as “tax reform and cuts, education resources and flexibility, and transportation.”

For his part, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos issued a reminder that the Legislature is a “co-equal” branch of government and called Walker’s budget “a work in progress.”

VOS ALSO said he does not support Walker’s 5% cut in UW System resident undergraduate tuition, saying it is now the lowest in the Big Ten. The two lawmakers who head the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee — Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren — doubted that the tuition cut will become law.

“I think we’re already cutting tuition by freezing it four years in a row,” Nygren said. Walker’s budget would freeze UW tuition for a fifth year in 2017-18.

Walker’s plan for state government to self-insure for health care also puts his fellow Republicans in a bind. Because the governor assumed it would save $60 million, he used $30 million of that to boost aid to public schools and give state workers a 2% pay raise.

IF LEGISLATORS don’t vote to self-insure, they must come up with $30 million.

Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor said Walker, who plans to run for a third term next year, larded up his budget with so much spending, knowing — and counting on — Republicans legislators to prune it back.

Walker “knew they weren’t going to support it,” Taylor said.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com

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