Road funding big, but not only, issue facing Wisconsin
The Wisconsin Legislature begins the 2017-2018 session on Tuesday. Among the major issues it’s expected to address is funding for roads.
Also on the agenda:
President-elect Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin, albeit with lukewarm initial support from Gov. Scott Walker and other state Republicans, gives the GOP an opportunity to make major changes in policy it hasn’t had in nearly 50 years. Walker and others have talked about seismic changes in funding affecting Medicaid, transportation and education, but with Trump as president other GOP initiatives that had been blocked in the state by President Barack Obama’s administration like drug-testing of food stamp recipients could move ahead. And Walker is hoping Wisconsin’s hybrid approach to health care, which includes some elements of Obama’s law, may serve as a model for what Trump and Congress does nationally.
BUMPY ROAD AHEAD
Road funding is the $1 billion elephant in the room. The Department of Transportation, at Walker’s direction, proposes plugging a nearly $1 billion shortfall with a mix of more borrowing and delaying ongoing road expansion and improvement projects. But Assembly Republican leaders say other ideas, including tax and fee increases, should be in the mix. Walker, and other Republicans, say nuts to that. The issue has publicly divided Republicans and absent a solution that will make everyone happy, it’s likely to be one of the most contentious problems of the session.
DIVIDE THE DNR?
Just what the duties of the Department of Natural Resources will be, and how the agency that oversees air and water quality and wildlife management will be organized, is expected to be a major fight this session. The agency proposed its own reorganization, which Walker was expected to include in his budget. But a Republican lawmaker is also pushing for the DNR to be broken up, a move Walker said he is open to considering but that outdoor and recreational groups are fighting.
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN
Walker is promising an increase in funding for UW after cutting it $250 million in the last budget. But he hasn’t said whether it will be enough to pay for the salary increases UW is seeking. Walker says he wants to tie funding to performance, such as enrollment, students in high-demand areas, graduation rates and graduates gaining employment. There is also likely to be a struggle over what to do about tuition, with the university pushing for an increase after a four-year freeze. And then there are the Republican lawmakers who say they don’t want to give UW any additional money as long as a course on racism titled “The Problem of Whiteness” is offered as planned this spring at the flagship Madison campus.
Walker is promising a “sizeable increase” in funding for K-12 public schools, raising the state-imposed limits on school district spending. Walker said he wants to make sure rural schools get more money, and public school advocates will be pushing back against any attempt to divert more spending to further expand the private school voucher or charter programs. Assembly Republicans also say one of their priorities is making sure every public school student has a laptop computer.
PUBLIC ASSISTANCE SHAKEUP
Walker has said his top priority will be putting more people to work. Part of that is likely to be focused on kicking people off public assistance sooner. Walker has talked about making public aid programs like food stamps “a trampoline, not a hammock. For those who are physically and mentally capable of working, we have to find ways of transitioning them in to the workforce.”
Walker said he is likely to include some increases in state park entry and camping fees for a second budget in a row to help keep them self-sustaining.
Walker is advocating for a $10 million sales tax holiday, where purchases on back-to-school supplies would not be subject to the sales tax.
The FBI investigation into allegations of abuse at the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison is ongoing, with some calling for the facility located 30 miles north of Wausau to be closed. Walker has been cool to that idea. If criminal charges are filed this year it could force debate of the prison’s future in the Legislature.
Some Republicans have talked about changing the state’s recount law to prevent candidates who have no chance from winning asking for a recount,as Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein did. Proposals to limit early voting times and locations, following a federal judge’s tossing of a state law that did just that, are also expected.
A proposal that failed last session barring transgender students from using the bathroom of the sex they identify with is expected to return.
A bill allowing for the carrying of concealed weapons on school grounds was expected to return.
A federal court in November threw out Republican-drawn legislative district boundaries, saying they amounted to unconstitutional gerrymandering that harmed Democrats. The question now is whether the Legislature will be forced to redraw the maps before the next round of elections in 2018. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide that.
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