Walker’s State Budget Rolls Out

On February 3rd, Governor Walker will provide the details of his budget plan in his Budget Address to the legislature. The anticipation surrounding this biennial address is heightened as Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s revenue numbers released last week indicate revenues for the current fiscal year are less than earlier estimates. With the steep needs of the Medicaid program, road projects, K-12 education, and the governor’s desire to cut more taxes, budget watchers are wondering how Governor Walker is going to proceed with his priorities. And as rumors about his presidential ambitions continue to escalate, Wisconsin political insider’s interest in next Tuesday’s budget address is rivaling Hollywood on Oscar night.

As in year’s past, the governor is already releasing details for some budget initiatives. Here are some items that have been released prior to Tuesday’s budget address. What we don’t know is how these initiatives will fit into the whole package and whether the legislators have an appetite for Walker’s level of reform.

Investments in Rural Wisconsin

Governor Walker’s plan for rural Wisconsin involves a number of initiatives, including rural education, infrastructure, health care, work force training, and the rural economy. 

For the rural economy the plan details:

  • $3 million for a jobs program led by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for Racine and Beloit, and rural areas that are in high-need of workers

  • $55 million in fiscal year 2017 for a regional revolving loan fund to be administered by regional economic development organizations

  • $15 million in matching state funds for the proposed Eau Claire area Confluence Arts Center

  • $24 million for pollution abatement practices

For rural education:

  • $8.4 million for the Sparsity Aid Program, a program that helps fund very small rural school districts

  • $5 million to the High-Cost Pupil Transportation aid program

  • An increase of $25 per pupil for districts transporting students more than 12 miles

  • Expand the Technology for Educational Achievement program to offer broadband access to public schools and libraries at discounted rates. The program will be funded through $25 million of an E-rate cash balance

For rural infrastructure: 

  • $6 million in new funding for the Broadband Expansion Grant Program

  • $9 million SEG to fund the general transportation aids

  • 1% increase to the elderly and disabled aid to counties, and expanding the program to those who require specialized transportation

  • $4 million for dam repair, reconstruction, and removal projects

  • $2 million annual increase to the Transportation Economic Assistance grants

In rural health care: 

  • $2 million to DCF to increase services for child sex trafficking victims

  • Provide funding to counties to develop crisis service programs and mental health programs

  • Require Department of Health Services (DHS) to seek a Medicaid waiver to create a pilot project that would allow an increase in dental reimbursement for some procedures

Workforce Readiness Plan

The governor’s workforce development plan focuses on developing skilled employees to fill jobs. Parts of the plan are extensions to current programs.  For example, the plan expands the Transform Milwaukee Jobs initiative to Racine, Beloit, and rural areas in need of skilled workers and adds new money to the Department of Workforce Development’s (DWD) Fast Forward grants program.  It also implements a tuition freeze while increasing scholarships for technical colleges students.

A more controversial component of this plan is alternative teacher licensure.  The concept allows for someone with real world experience to get a teaching license after passing a competency test. While this would allow experts in a field to enter the teaching profession, some teachers’ groups are against the proposal, stating that knowledge on a subject does not make a person an effective educator.

The most controversial proposal, which made national headlines, is a new drug testing requirement for unemployment insurance, FoodShare, Transform Milwaukee, and other benefit program recipients. However, the likelihood of this program being fully implemented is unlikely. The governor’s plan specified the drug testing requirement would not apply to children or the elderly and any implementation of the proposal would require a waiver from federal law. Drug testing has been allowed by the feds in some states, but only for benefit recipients who have previously lost their job to substance abuse or for jobs that already require drug testing.

UW System

Governor Walker proposed the University System receive more autonomy in decision-making and the potential for a lower cost structure, in exchange for a $300 million reduction in state aid. The budget cut to the University of Wisconsin Authority is in addition to a two-year tuition freeze. After the two-year freeze, tuition rates will be determined by each school.

The plan will grant schools more flexibility to approve their own building projects and change the rules of procurement. As a result, the system should see some savings. The added independence will allow the schools to determine employee pay and benefits. While Governor Walker anticipates long-term savings, many UW System officials are worried about how the budget cut would affect current costs , which could force layoffs.