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July 20, 2019

6/13/2019 7:30:00 AM
Our view
Not a people's budget, but not Evers' budget, either

Gov. Tony Evers has called his budget proposal, which is now thankfully dead, a "people's budget," but it was anything but a blessing for hard-working Wisconsinites.

Rather, it represented the re-emergence of big government's bureaucratic orchestra, with a chorus of liberal elites singing its praise. The rest of us were covering our ears and trying to hide our wallets.

This week the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee will just about wrap up its version of the budget, and, while it's not a people's budget either - Republicans can be fond of special interests and spending, too - it at least prevents Democrats from doing mighty damage to the progress made over the last eight years.

Nowhere is that more evident than in transportation. The governor wanted an eight cents a gallon gas tax increase which would have brutally punished lower- and middle-income residents and rural areas.

Republicans deadended that idea, and instead opted for, among other things, a much preferred and more modest car registration fee increase, as well as a titling fee increase and a one-time infusion of cash from the general fund. Overall, though, they did not provide for a sustainable way to pay for the state's highway infrastructure.

Sustainability will require two things that neither party wants to deal with: tolling, and reforms at the state Department of Transportation that would significantly reduce costs and that other states have adopted.

Neither party will tiptoe toward tolling that would make urban commercial interests pay their share of highway use and maintenance - that's the fair way to make the users of highways pay a user fee, not a gas tax hike, as Democrats argue - because special interests don't want it, and so neither do Republicans and Democrats.

As for those reforms, the JFC passed on the opportunity to put the GOP's Road to Sustainability reforms on the negotiating table, though they would save millions and millions of dollars. Instead they promised some vague reforms down the road in what they know will be doomed stand-alone legislation.

What were they thinking?

The education budget is another example of the lose-lose mentality. Evers wanted a massive and unrealistic increase of $1.4 billion, with $600 million of that for much-needed special education funding, which has flatlined for far too long.

The Republicans would instead boost spending by a much more reasonable $500 million but they again gave special education short-shrift, increasing spending by only $50 million, a fraction of what Evers proposed and far less than is needed.

Of course, it should be said that simply sending more money into traditional government-run special education programs that don't work wouldn't have been a good idea, either. What's more, Evers's budget would have choked to death the voucher and charter schools that are much needed to build alternative special education programs that have been proven to work, such as autism-specific schools and other innovative approaches.

At least the Republicans killed the governor's attempt to kill choice and charter schools, but they didn't go all in for those, either, and that's a shame both because those approaches are needed to fulfill individual student needs and because they provide a cheaper education that is at least the same quality as traditional public institutions, and often better.

Choice is the key not only to a quality education but to sustainable education funding.

Renewing the state's Stewardship program for another two years was another disappointment. The program should be sunset and ended, and Republicans know it. As our own Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) and Sen Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) have pointed out, the DNR has already either purchased or protected 1.8 million acres of land - more than the entire state of Rhode Island or Delaware - piling up a debt of $795 million.

The original program's idea was to inventory lands that needed to be protected and then to protect them and end the program, with other lands being considered after that on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, lawmakers knew that environmentalists would forever find more and more land to protect until the government owned it all.

Of course, typical of a government program, the sunset provision was removed, and the state continues to gobble up land senselessly. The program needs to end, not reauthorized for two years or any years.

And how about those capital expenditures Republicans approved? That would be a whopping $1.9 billion, mostly for the UW System, which state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) points out is a new record, topping Jim Doyle's previous $1.7 billion record from 2009-11.

Again, that's less than the $2.5 billion that Evers wanted, but it's still a record and it's another example of Republicans packaged as Democrat Lite.

The GOP did good things, too, and they should be given hearty credit for those. They embraced a middle-class tax cut while still protecting the manufacturing tax credit, which helps create jobs.

They also voted to increase the Wisconsin Shares program, which helps low-income working parents with children, and authorized millions more for low-wage personal care workers and Family Care's direct caregivers, both of which are justifiable decisions.

Just as important, they nixed some of Evers's most radical and reckless proposals, such as giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition and driver's licenses. They also refused to vote for an increase in the minimum wage that would simply have hurt small businesses and lower-income workers.

They blocked Medicaid expansion, too, a responsible decision in a state that has no coverage gaps and already covers low-income adults up to the federal poverty level, as well as all children.

So the Republicans did a lot of good things, though with courage they could have voted to do a lot more. They could have voted to put Wisconsin on a fiscal path that not only unleashes the economy but ensures its sustainability.

But they could have done that during Scott Walker's tenure as governor, and didn't then, either.

Maybe the best that can be said about the Republican budget - which Evers might yet veto in its entirety or carve up with his veto pen - is that it isn't Evers's budget.

With Evers as governor and bureaucrats once again on the loose, that might just be good enough.

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