Gov. Evers’ $91B biennial budget plan pushes big spending in education, justice reform, unemployment improvements

MADISON, Wis. — Governor Tony Evers kicked off Wisconsin’s biennial budget planning Tuesday night with a $91 billion plan and a range of proposals prioritizing education, mental health, justice reform, reinstatement of collective bargaining rights for some public employees, and more.

“Change is possible,” Evers said in his budget address. “The future we want to build is possible, because I know you will hold us to account and demand it.”

The plan represents a $10 billion increase over Wisconsin’s last biennial budget approved in 2019 and about $1 billion in tax increases. Many of the proposals released Tuesday aren’t new, and didn’t survive the Republican-led legislature rewrite during the 2019 biennium budget cycle. The Republican-led budget committee in the legislature will spend the coming months rewriting their own budget proposals, which will then return to the governor’s desk where he can exercise his line-item veto powers.

Republican leadership labeled the proposals a ‘liberal wishlist’, and signaled they’d kill many of the policies they found divisive. They hadn’t seen the budget brief before the address, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said.

“On first brush it really looks like this is not the ‘Badger Bounce Back’ plan; it’s the Badger bounce backwards plan,” Rep. Vos said in a press conference following the speech.

The budget recommendations are based on moderate economic growth, as projected by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Those increases include a 6.7% estimated rise in sales tax revenue in the 2021-2022 fiscal year and a 37% growth in corporate tax revenue in the current fiscal year.

Evers called it a “Badger Bounce Back agenda” after a year he acknowledged was full of challenges.

“We aren’t going to follow the map back to where we started when this pandemic began,” Evers said. “After all we’ve been through, we aren’t going to apologize for wanting more for each other—for our neighbors, for our kids, our parents and grandparents, and our state’s future.

K-12 Education

Gov. Evers is once again aiming to increase the state’s share of public school funding to two-thirds of partial revenue for both years of the biennium. The last budget pushed K-12 spending by an increase of about $500 million, but missed the two-thirds threshold that the governor had original proposed.

Building on increases in the last budget, Gov. Evers wants to increase special education funding by $709 million, a big step-up from the last budget’s increase of $95 million.

The governor wants another $20 million invested in aid to rural school districts.

“The reality is that our public schools from Kickapoo to Cashton have been doing much more with far less for far too long,” Gov. Evers said Tuesday.

Wage & Employment

A proposal rejected in 2019, the governor’s budget once again includes proposals to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.15 by 2024 using incremental increases, as well as funding for a task force to study options on how to  ultimately increase minimum wage in the state to $15 per hour. Other measures included in the plan, already turned down by Republicans two years ago, include a repeal of right-to-work legislation passed in 2015.

A new measure would effectively repeal some portions of Act 10 for state and local public frontline workers–a definition that would be determined by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. Under the governor’s plan, his budget would restore collective bargaining rights for government employees in public-facing jobs.

Budget recommendations also include $79 million in funding available right away to upgrade the state’s outdated unemployment system, increase weekly state unemployment benefits to $409 (from $370) in the first year, while waiving the one-week waiting period for eligibility and repealing maximum earning thresholds and the drug testing requirement.

This comes after a trying year for the state’s Department of Workforce Development. DWD has faced criticism throughout the pandemic for delays in distributing unemployment payments to those who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Evers called a special session of the Legislature last month to address the state’s “broken” unemployment system.

Other work-related proposals include expansion of the Wisconsin Family Medical Leave Act, and funding for a parental leave program and minimum wage of $15 per hour for state employees.

UW System

Under the governor’s recommendations, the state would continue the longest-running tuition freeze in the country. The plan continues the UW System’s tuition freeze for undergraduates, first implemented in 2013, into its eighth and ninth years.

As many campuses across the system battle declining tuition balances, declining enrollment and staff cuts, the plan would offset losses with  also provide a significant increase in funding of about $190 million over the last biennium to offset pandemic losses and tuition freeze impacts.

The governor’s proposals would also expand UW-Madison’s Bucky’s Tuition Promise to all UW System campuses in the state, a program that provides four years of free tuition to students coming from a household with an adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less.

Juvenile Justice, Sentencing, and Corrections

The state’s only juvenile correctional facility at Lincoln Hills remains open, despite being slated for closure in a law passed in 2017. Gov. Evers introduced proposals that would invest in smaller, community-based facilities, saying he remained committed to closing the facility.

He’s also again proposing that Wisconsin raise the age for charging as an adult from 17 to 18.

The budget would invest millions in a community-based services grant program and evidence-based treatment, and invest in secure confinement facilities run by either the state or counties.

“This model would also allow for consistent services and supports when youth are transitioning out of facilities to a lower level of care or back with their families,” a press release stated.

The plan calls for major changes to adult corrections, justice and sentencing as well, including changes to the state’s earned release program for prisoners. His plan would invest millions in treatment and diversion programs and other alternative justice initiatives.

“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them if we want to bounce back and better than we were before this pandemic hit,” Evers said. “That’s why our Badger Bounceback agenda is about investing in people, not prisons.”

Climate Change

A major focus of Evers’ budget address centered on climate change and how his budget proposal would address it.

“Folks, we cannot afford to continue ignoring science and denying the reality of climate change in Wisconsin,” Evers said. “I know we can deliver on the promise we make to our kids to leave them a better life and world than the one we inherited.”

He spoke about increased flooding over the past few years caused in part by climate change. His budget includes a $30 million proposed investment in proactively floodproofing.

Wisconsin has a commitment to be 100% carbon-free by 2050. To help in that goal, Evers said his budget would double the required utility company contribution to the Focus on Energy Program, bringing in an additional $100 million to make buildings more efficient.

The governor also proposes investing $1 million in a Fast Forward program to train for green jobs across the state, encouraging residents to go into clean energy production and environmental conservation.

Recreational Marijuana

Earlier this month, Evers announced his budget proposal would include a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use. He first pushed medical marijuana legalization in his 2019 budget.

The state expects that would generate $165.8 million in new tax revenue annually; about $80 million would go into a newly created Community Reinvestment Fund.

If legalized, marijuana would be taxed and regulated by the Department of Revenue and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Individuals would need to be 21 years of age to purchase the substance

Sales Tax Option

Last week, the governor proposed allowing local governments to add an additional .5% sales tax. The provision would allow counties to increase sales tax by an additional 0.5% on top of the 0.5% allowed under state law right now if the increase is approved by referendum. The budget proposal also allows the state’s 27 municipalities of 30,000 people or larger to also increase sales taxes by a further 0.5 percent if approved by voters in a referendum.

State law sets sales tax at 5 percent, with 68 out of the state’s 72 counties adding on the additional 0.5% currently allowed.

Help for Small Businesses, Economic Development

Under the budget, more than $329 million would go into new economic development initiatives.

That would include a new $100 million venture capital fund to help startups, a well as $200 million to assist small businesses hurt by the pandemic.

“Our Badger Bounceback agenda makes a larger state investment into the (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) than the last three budgets combined,” Evers said. “We’re going to put $200 million into helping small businesses affected by the pandemic, including helping them retain and rehire the jobs they’ve lost.”

Medicaid/insurance plan

A proposal already rejected by Republicans in 2019, Gov. Evers had already announced his intentions to once again seek acceptance of federal dollars for Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin.

His budget would also include funding to conduct a study into a state-administered health insurance options, as well as a measure that would develop a state-run public option in the event the Affordable Care Act is struck down or replaced.

“This initiative reduces the cost of plans on the marketplace, bringing in revenue to the state that otherwise would go to the federal government, and gives the state more autonomy over creating a marketplace that fits the unique needs of Wisconsinites,” the budget proposal reads.

“People across our state and country spent the better part of the last year worried—worried about how you’ll see a doctor or afford your prescriptions, worried about taking care of your loved ones from a distance, worried about affording childcare for your kids, and how this pandemic has affected them,” Evers said.

Law Enforcement Accountability and Transparency

The governor’s budget aims to increase accountability and transparency within law enforcement agencies.

Measures would establish standards of use of force by law enforcement, ensuring that each agency’s policy is publicly available. Law enforcement officers would complete at least eight hours of training on force options a year.

The Department of Justice would also be supplied the resources to develop and deliver implicit bias training for law enforcement officers. New training positions would also focus on officer wellness. The governor also wants to fund programs offering community-based alternatives for certain 911 calls.