Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers made a plea for bipartisanship with the unveiling of a nearly $104 billion state budget on February 15 that includes a new paid family leave program for most public and private-sector workers, tax cuts for the middle class, a plan to keep the Milwaukee Brewers in their stadium until at least 2043, and higher spending for public schools.
“Let’s not allow our work together to be hindered by partisanship,” Governor Evers said in his speech to the GOP-controlled Legislature. “Let’s dispose of the notion that the priorities in this budget are somehow extreme or far-fetched. I promise you this: in this budget, there’s more that unites us than divides us.”
Despite the call for bipartisanship, Republican leaders have promised to ditch most of what Governor Evers was asking for and start from scratch, just as they did with his two previous budgets. That means Governor Evers’ ideas like legalizing marijuana, requiring background checks for gun purchases, accepting federal Medicaid expansion, spending $2.6 billion more on K-12 schools, and automatic voter registration will almost certainly be jettisoned.
Governor Evers said that issues that should have bipartisan support include funding schools, recruiting and retaining workers, improving access to health care, cutting taxes, fighting pollution, reducing child care costs, improving mental health, expanding broadband internet access and fixing roads and bridges.
“These aren’t Republican or Democratic priorities — they’re Wisconsin priorities, areas where we should be able to find common ground,” he said.
Governor Evers announced a new initiative to spend $240 million to launch a new statewide program to provide public and most private-sector workers with 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and expand what it can be used for. Reasons to take the leave include care for a new child; a serious health condition; military deployment; unforeseen closure of a child care facility; and the aftermath of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Governor Evers dubbed it a “breakthrough budget,” saying the state’s surplus gives policy makers a chance to address longstanding problems. The budget increases spending by nearly 18% in the first year and decreases it by nearly 1% in the second year.
There were some signs of agreement. Both sides want to tap the state’s record-high projected budget surplus of around $7 billion to cut taxes. But they are farther apart on how much should be spent and how.
Republicans favor implementing a flat income tax, which Governor Evers opposes. He wants tax cuts to target the middle class. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has suggested a compromise can be reached.
Governor Evers signed a budget two years ago that included a $2 billion income tax cut approved by the Republican Legislature. Vos has said he wants to cut taxes for the rich by more than $3.4 billion this time, while the Evers tax cut plan comes to about a third of that at $1.2 billion.
The Governor’s budget cuts taxes by about $1.5 billion and raises nearly as much, mostly through reducing a tax credit for manufacturers and by increasing taxes on some capital gains.
Governor Evers got behind an idea discussed by Republicans to use about 20% of the state’s sales tax revenue to fund local governments. A broad coalition that includes counties, cities, towns, villages, law enforcement agencies and first responders are working to get more funding, a movement that appears to have bipartisan support.
“We have to get this done,” Governor Evers said on February 15. “The state has to start being a partner in — not an obstacle to — our local communities’ success. The way we’ve been funding our local governments isn’t sustainable. We need to change that.”
Governor Evers surprised Republicans with a plan announced recently to spend $290 million on repairs to American Family Field under a deal with the Brewers that would include them extending their lease by 13 years through 2043.
Republicans blanched at not being consulted ahead of time, but also pledged to work with Democrats to keep the Brewers in Milwaukee.
Governor Evers also called for about a 15% spending increase for public schools, which amounts to $2.6 billion more in funding over the next two years. Governor Evers last year had proposed spending $2 billion more, a plan that Vos at the time called a “feeble ploy” to win votes. Republicans favor spending more to expand the state’s private school choice program.
The budget calls for giving state employees a 5% wage increase in 2023 and a 3% increase in 2024.
Republicans will work over the next four months to rewrite and pass the two-year state budget. It will then go to Governor Evers, who has the power to make changes with his line-item veto. The new budget takes effect in July and runs through June 30, 2025.