SPOONER– The state budget that is being voted on by the Assembly and Senate this week – at more than 800 pages – is a good budget, one that has some solid funding for rural areas, Rep. Romaine Quinn said during a stop in Spooner on Friday, June 21.
The Assembly was to vote on Tuesday, June 25, and the Senate on Thursday. Gov. Tony Evers will have 10 days then to pass his judgement on it.
"Even though we didn't get to where the governor wanted," Quinn said, "this will be the biggest budget in state history. We went from 76 billion to 81 in a two-year period. That is a huge bump, and he [Evers] wanted to take us to 83.
"I'm sorry, we can't go up 7, almost 8 billion in two years. That's insane. So we try to get as far as we could, while trying to say we still have to watch the structural deficit. We can't bank on future money that may not show up."
Compared to Evers' budget, he said, the new proposed budget cuts the structural deficit by $500 million and does not raise the taxes by $1 billion, which Evers had proposed. Every department gets an increase in the budget, Quinn said.
"I think it's good budget. I think we invested in a lot of really important priorities, especially for rural areas," he said. "Our home health care, nursing homes, personal care workers, and schools. That was big. We're fully funding high-cost transportation, finally."
High-cost transportation is money to schools that have high transportation costs.
He said the budget also brings the low-spending schools such as Spooner up to the $10,000-per-pupil funding level by the end of the next two years. Other schools will see a $200 increase per pupil in the first year of the budget and
$204 in the second.
That increase would be the funding floor in the subsequent budgets, too.
Not as much went to schools as the governor requested but more was appropriated to nursing homes, personal care workers, CNAs, and Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments for hospitals with a high number of Medicaid and uninsured patients, Quinn said.
"So there's give and take, and obviously negotiation should happen with joint finance and the governor, but talks kind of stalled off and on with some of that stuff. But of course, that's the legislature's turn to work with joint finance to say, what would we want?"
Each legislator is assigned to a member of the Joint Finance Committee to work with through the budgeting process. Quinn said he, for instance, pushed hard for the new science building at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, which made it into the budget and would be a significant project regionally.
"That'll be pretty transformational, even this far north, because it's a partnership with Mayo," he said. Undergraduates will be able to research alongside Mayo's top researchers.
Another project he pushed for was a dairy innovation hub, "more researchers in the UW System to further promote and use dairy products to try and create more markets because we know dairy's in the gutter right now."
He also supported keeping the budget a fiscal issue, not a policy-setting pathway, where topics like marijuana policies would be debated separately, outside of the budget.
He stressed additional funding for personal care workers and CNAs, which he said is a "dire need" because their wages are so low, especially when the economy is growing.
Child Protection Services would receive more money to help pay for the increased out-of-home and foster care for children due to meth issues in their home. Meth is the No. 1 law enforcement in area counties, Quinn said.
Another issue that has gotten a lot of attention is school funding, and Quinn said the budget puts funding at less than a percentage point from two-thirds funding. It has not been that close to two-thirds since Gov. Jim Doyle was governor.
Gov. Evers wanted to spend more approximately $900 million more on schools, but the problem, Quinn said, was that with the school funding, the governor's proposed Medicaid expansion, and raising the taxes by a billion dollars, even with the state's surplus and projected growth, the governor would have "spent every dollar and then we still had a structural deficit heading into the next two years."
A structural deficit results when the projected growth that budgets are based on does not materialize.
At some point, the economy will slow down, Quinn said.
Quinn believes the funding in the budget is sustainable but the governor's $1.3 billion request is too high because it banks on more than 3 percent growth in the economy each year.
The proposed budget provides the increase that most superintendents were hoping for, he said, including the $200 per-pupil increase plus another $96 million for special education (a 22 percent increase in special education revenue).
Schools absorb the highest proportion of the state budget.
Another bonus for the area, Quinn said, is that the number of state prosecutors will go up for the circuit courts.
"So, right now, Barron county is going to get another prosecutor," Quinn said. "We've been fighting for that for four years. Case loads are through the roof."
Washburn County is going to go from 1.25 prosecutors to two full time.
The budget also increases the private bar rate for private attorneys taking state public defender cases from $40 to $70 and increases the hourly rate for private attorneys taking county-appointed cases to $100 per hour.
Area counties have had trouble finding enough attorneys to take on the load of extra public defender cases due to the low reimbursement rates.
In the transportation budget, extra funding will come in the from raising the vehicle registration cost from $85 to $95 and increasing the title fee from $69.50 to $164.50.
Quinn said that will save more people more money than what the governor proposed, adding an 8-cent gas tax, especially for rural drivers, since they would spend less on registrations and titles than what they would for the gas tax on the extra miles they drive.
Quinn said the gas tax would have been shared by all drivers, not just Wisconsin-based drivers, but it would not have brought in much more money and would have cost rural drivers more.
He said the gas tax would have brought in about $600 million, while the registration fees would take in an estimated $400 million.
He pointed out that as more electric cars come on line, the gas tax will bring in less revenue, too.
Overall, he said, the budget has the least borrowing for roads since the 2001 budget.
Also, $90 million over the governor's proposal for LRIP (local road improvement program) was added to the budget, plus the budget lowers the local municipality's match from 50 percent to 10 percent.
Quinn believes the extra funds and lower match will be significant for the townships. He said getting more money for rural roads approved by those in southern Wisconsin is like "pulling teeth," and some people also believe state money should only go to state highways, not town roads.
"So it was a big to get them to go along with 90 more million dollars on top of a 10%," he said.
The budget also put $46 million into broadband, the "biggest injection of money for infrastructure," Quinn said. "We know connectivity is not a luxury anymore. It's necessary for education, business, health care."
"I think rural Wisconsin did very well in this budget," Quinn summarized.
Talking about additional priorities for next two years, Quinn said, "We can't take our eye off the ball on meth addiction. I think that's a big piece. It's busting our county budgets, and it's destroying families, and who knows the long-term consequences of these children that are exposed to that or the trauma that goes along with that."
He said it will be important to continue discussions on broadband, school issues such as what is the best way to treat children with mental health issues, putting money into rural roads as well as freeways in the southern part of the state, dementia care specialists, and issues that may not have the same importance in the southern part of the state such as stewardship programs, natural resources, and forestry.
He noted that Wisconsin has more fabrication labs (fab labs) in schools than any other state.
"At the end of the day," Quinn said, "we fixed a number of important problems, invested a lot more money in our priorities, and we held the overlying overhaul line on taxes, reduced the structural deficit, and lowered bonding, especially in transportation.
Though the budget gives "heartburn" to some of the conservatives, he said, because the budget spends billions more than a couple of years ago, it is new revenue coming in, not additional taxes.