This week, the budget process came to halt, as the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) remains at an impasse on education, transportation and property taxes. After the long Memorial Day weekend, JFC met only once last week on Wednesday, May 31. As the Assembly and Senate tried to smooth over their differences on the remaining items, JFC cancelled this week’s Tuesday and Thursday meetings.
Assembly Republicans released an education plan on Tuesday that cuts property taxes, but not as much as Gov. Scott Walker’s budget recommended. Walker has threatened to veto a budget that does not cut property taxes below the 2014 level, and Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the Senate would stick to Walker’s plan. The Assembly’s transportation plan has also yet to gain traction in the Senate. Fitzgerald hinted recently that the Senate could take up their own budget, an unprecedented move in the history of the Joint Finance Committee. Lawmakers have just three weeks left to approve a budget before the June 30 deadline.
At the time of this writing, the next JFC meeting to take up the budget has not been scheduled. However, JFC will be in next Thursday June 15, to act on the state’s pending contracts to self-insure state employees.
With no JFC action to report on from this week, below are highlights from JFC’s May 31 executive session:
Department of Corrections (DOC)– Parole Commission: Gov. Walker recommended eliminating the parole commission and moving its functions to one Director of Parole position within DOC. Instead, Republicans passed a motion 12-4 that would not eliminate the commission, as Gov. Walker suggested, but would eliminate three positions on the commission that have been vacant all year, and retain a total of four members and two staff on the commission. Democrats on the committee fought to keep the eight-member commission as is, but their motion was rejected 12-4.
Supreme Court: Gov. Walker proposed creating a new process to determine judicial compensation. Under Walker’s proposed process, the Director of State Courts would submit salary recommendations to the Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER) for approval. JFC did not accept the governor’s recommendation to create a new process, but approved a motion to maintain current law that judicial compensation be determined under the state employee compensation plan. Under the approved motion, judges and justices would also get a two percent raise in each year of the biennium. The motion also gives the administrator of the Division of Personnel Management the authority to establish even higher raises after consulting with the Chief Justice and obtaining the approval of JCOER.
Also under the Supreme Court, Democrats pushed to incorporate a former petition and current bill that would require justices and judges to recuse themselves in cases where the litigants have donated significant campaign contributions. However, the motion failed 12-4.
District Attorneys: JFC also approved a pay raise for district attorneys and public defenders at an increased rate from Walker’s plan. The committee unanimously voted to establish a state prosecutor board and statutory state prosecutor’s office. The motion’s authors say the board will give district attorneys representation in the capitol. The board would be made up of district attorneys, prosecutors and the attorney general. Its duties would include providing best practices for prosecuting cases, continuing education opportunities, submitting budget requests and providing recommendations on bills and administrative rules.
Tourism: JFC approved Gov. Walker’s standard budget adjustments for the Department of Tourism. Additionally, JFC approved Walker’s recommendation to transfer the Department of Tourism’s financial manager to the Department of Administration, moving $50,000 annually from salary and benefits to supplies and services for the department.
JFC also passed three other motions in Tourism. The first motion provided the department additional onetime funding of $7,500 for geographical signing in Pittsville. The second motion provided the department, on a one-time basis, $75,000 to improve structures and property in Vernon County that are used to facilitate a national or international ski jumping competition. The last motion provided the Wisconsin Arts Board with a one-time $59,500 to match federal grants received from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Department of Natural Resources: JFC addressed several of Gov. Walker’s divisive proposals under the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at the May 31 meeting. Walker had proposed eliminating DNR’s Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine and move its content online. Democrats pushed to leave the magazine as is, but the committee ultimately voted to keep the magazine, but reduce its publication from six to four times per year and require more online content. Second to education funding, the elimination of the DNR magazine was one of the top items, Wisconsin residents testified against in the public hearings in March.
JFC also adopted Gov. Walker’s proposal to increase daily park fees by up to $5, but kept annual admission fee rates intact.
Gov. Walker had also proposed sunsetting the state forestry mill property tax as part of his promise to eliminate the state property tax altogether. JFC held over voting on this provision and instead will take it up later under property taxes. However, JFC co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) indicated that the GOP majority would approve it.