March 30, 2017
UPDATED: First Week Twists and Turns
On Thursday, JFC held the third and final day of agency briefs. It heard from the heads of the PSC, DNR, the Tech College System, UW, DPI, the Historical Society, DWD and the Labor and Industry Review Commission. That hearing wrapped up a week of twists, turns, and sparring over the governor's budget.
"Got a little punchy last night, because we're here a long time. But the Senator [Darling] did a good job trying to keep order," Rep. Nygren said at the start of the marathon 13-hour hearing on Thursday.
Democrat members of the committee continued to push the department heads, but with less ferocity than the day before. PSC talked about the governor's plan to invest $15.5 million into broadband expansion.
DNR Secretary Kathy Stepp talked about the decision to stop publishing Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. She said 0.1 percent of Wisconsin residents choose to subscribe to the magazine, and that the internet is much more efficient in sharing the DNR's activities with the public.
"Every budget there's something typically that a lot of people see as a smaller issue that gets a lot of attention, and this year it's the magazine," Nygren commented.
Next up came the Wisconsin Tech College System. Administrators there testified against the proposed tuition freeze for the tech colleges, saying that they believed a freeze could jeopardize quality.
Multiple legislators expressed concerns about the provision to require the tech colleges to increase credit transferability from 30 to 60 credits. Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, worried that the switch would contribute to the agency "mission creep" and effectively make the tech colleges the same as two-year UW campuses. (MacIver News covered this issue in a 2015 video report: Tech Colleges and the UW Colleges: Do We Need Both?)
Moving forward on education, next came the UW System. President Ray Cross expressed his support for the Governor's UW budget proposal, calling it "the best UW budget in a decade." President Cross agreed with several legislators, including Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), that he supports the intent of requiring students to attain internships before graduating, but wasn't sure how to make the provision mandatory.
President Cross spent several minutes fervently defending the importance of free speech on campus. He lamented the fact that college students with opposing views don't listen to each other anymore, but simply shout each other down. That's not what college is for, Cross stressed.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) testified after the UW System, with State Superintendent Tony Evers highlighting the massive increases to mental health funding in the budget, alongside the investments in rural schools and MPS summer school.
The Superintendent expressed his concerns about the provision requiring public school district employees to contribute an average of 12 percent to their healthcare costs. That provision is known as "Act 10 compliance," referring to the famous law that first required public employees to contribute those amounts.
One notable moment came when Sen. Vukmir asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau about funding for public schools compared to the choice program, referencing one particularly confusing memo which showed that students in the choice program receive more state funding than public school students. LFB debunked that claim themselves, clarifying that when state and local levies are included, public school students receive nearly $5,000 more than choice students.
The Wisconsin Historical Society testified after DPI. Representatives discussed their move to a new office and artifact storage facility and the potential to preserve the Ringling Bros. circus after it announced it would no longer tour.
Following the Historical Society was the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). Secretary Ray Allen touted Wisconsin's low unemployment rate and high labor force participation rate, as well as the budget's investment in the Fast Forward program and other job training measures.
Sen. Olsen praised the agency and its work, but also expressed concern that the state's rock-bottom unemployment rate of 3.7 percent could indicate to employers that all Wisconsinites are already employed and push them away. Allen replied that one way to grow the workforce is to encourage people not in the labor force to enter it by making it as easy as possible to find a job.
Rep. Shankland also sparked some confusion when she tried grilling Allen over the proposed repeal of prevailing wage, which Allen said was the purview of the DOA, not his agency. The question was quickly resolved, and Shankland moved on to asking about Project Labor Agreement reform, which Allen said is also outside his agency's area of authority.
The night wrapped up with testimony from the Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC), which the budget dismantles and transfers its responsibilities to other departments. This generated controversy among some JFC members because there is a risk that complaints now filed with LIRC will be handled less efficiently in a not-yet-known process. The change may also have adverse consequences for victims, particularly of workplace discrimination, some JFC Democrats contended.
Overall, the week was filled with plenty of intrigue around the budget and other upcoming battles in the legislature. As Secretary Dave Ross answered hours of questions about the proposed DOT budget, Governor Walker reiterated his position on his K-12 education budget and opposition to a gas tax increase in a tweet.
In real time, Sen. Jon Erpenbach mentioned the governor's tweet during the day's marathon Joint Finance Committee hearing as committee members grilled Ross on the transportation budget.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald announced the state Senate will not override a veto by the governor on a gas tax increase. That echoed Sen. Luther Olsen's comment at Joint Finance that the Senate does not have a hard-and-fast position on the idea of a gas tax increase. The Wisconsin State Journal said Fitzgerald's announcement "flatlined" any attempt to raise the gas tax.
At the same time, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos criticized DOT Secretary Dave Ross's position against a gas tax hike as "delusional" and said, "...to say it's only a spending problem is to ignore the reality of the governor's own three commissions that have all said it's a revenue problem and the audit that says we have some of the worst roads in the entire country," according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Fitzgerald and Vos also found themselves at odds over a proposed Article V Constitutional Convention. Last week, a bill that would add Wisconsin to a list of states calling for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution with a balanced budget amendment cleared a state Senate committee on party lines. Fitzgerald's support for the measure was tepid out of concern about the scope of such an unprecedented convention.
Vos, on the other hand, said that now is the time for such an amendment. If the bill passes, Wisconsin will become the 30th state to endorse a Constitutional convention. A call for convention must pass 34 states for convention to convene.