MacIver News Service | May 3, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. — Legislative fiscal hawks seem to be breathing a sigh of relief after the Joint Finance Committee co-chairs announced the Republican-controlled budget-writing panel will vote next week to remove the lengthy list of non-fiscal items from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ budget.
“It’s a big victory for conservatives,” said Mike Mikalsen, spokesman for state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater).
Nass has been an outspoken critic, not only of the governor’s $84.2 billion budget proposal but of what he has described as some of his Republican colleagues’ “growing willingness” to support a gas tax hike and increased vehicle registration fees.
While he and other fiscal conservatives are concerned that Assembly Republicans could strike a deal with Evers on a higher gas tax and indexing, Mikalsen said it will be a tough sell to the majority of Wisconsin voters opposed to such “revenue enhancements.”
JFC co-chairs, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) this week announced the committee will begin its heavy-lifting on the budget next Thursday. The first order of business is a vote to remove 70 non-fiscal policy items — including Medicaid expansion, decriminalization of marijuana, and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants — from the governor’s budgets.
If Evers wants any of the 70 items (the second-highest number of non-fiscal policy provisions proposed since 2001), he will have to work with the Legislature to take them up as separate bills.
Darling and Nygren said the Finance Committee will begin crafting the budget on the adjusted base, derived from the previous year’s spending. That’s no surprise. Republicans have blasted Evers’ budget proposal, a substantial increase over the last two-year budget signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, as “not serious” and a “liberal wish list.” Many Republicans have suggested all along that the JFC would effectively have to start over.
While Evers’ recommendations will be before the committee, it will take a majority vote — nine of the 16 members — to include them into the JFC’s version of the budget. Likewise, any motion advanced by a member of the committee will require a majority vote to be adopted.
Since Republicans control the budget-writing committee 12-4, Democrats would need some Republican defectors to save the governor’s budget proposals. Of course, Evers has a pretty powerful veto pen, and he’s threatened to use it if he doesn’t get what he wants. Republican leadership in both caucuses have said they are united in holding the line against Evers’ spending plan.
But not everywhere.
Assembly and Senate Republican leadership, according to sources, are divided on Evers’ plan to raise the state’s already-high gas tax by 8 cents. The Democrat’s plan also would index the tax, setting it to the rate of inflation, a likely automatic price increase that sounds a lot like taxation without representation to conservative lawmakers.
While Senate Republican leadership is against a tax increase, their counterparts in the Assembly sound willing to consider a compromise.
As a truly fiscal item, Evers’ gas tax increase remains in the budget that the Joint Finance Committee will take up next week. Republicans will have to get at least nine of 12 votes to kill it. That could prove problematic. Capitol sources say if there is one area where some Republicans may look for common ground with Evers it’s in funding Wisconsin’s roads. And they have a lot of other fiscal battles to fight.
“We can’t stop it all, so what do we stop?” one source told MacIver News Service.
Despite the Assembly GOP leadership’s continuous attempts to “resurrect” the gas tax hike, Mikalsen said there is diminishing support for it among rank-and-file members. And, Mikalsen said, “voters are way ahead” of the politicians again on the issue.
He pointed to the most recent Marquette Law School Poll, which found 57 percent of respondents opposed raising the gas tax.
And Mikalsen pointed to Minnesota, where the Republican-controlled Senate just shot down a 20-cent gasoline tax hike pushed by Gov. Tim Walz, of the Democratic Farmer-Labor party, and Minnesota House Democrats. Evers has pointed to Minnesota and Ohio, which originally proposed an 18-cent increase per gallon of gas, effectively saying, See, we’re not asking for as much as those states.
The Ohio Legislature recently split the difference, jacking up the tax by 10.5 cents. Cleveland.com still asked, “Is the gas tax increase enough for Ohio’s crumbling roads?’ The answer to the road-building lobby, which spends a lot of money getting lawmakers’ attention, is no. It’s never enough.
Evers, at a Milwaukee Press Club event earlier this week, said Wisconsin needs a revenue source now.
“A gas tax worked in the past, and it will work in the future,” the governor said.
Fiscal conservatives say removing the non-fiscal items from Evers’ budget is a good first step in the line of defense against big government getting bigger.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said doing so will protect the conservative reforms of the Walker era, particularly the worker freedom laws that Big Labor, Evers’ biggest political benefactor, has sought to wipe out.
“Reforms like the repeal of Prevailing Wage, Right-to-Work, and Project Labor Agreements have been incredible wins for Wisconsin taxpayers,” Stroebel said in a statement. “I look forward to voting to remove these (Evers’ proposals to undo labor reforms) items from the budget next week.
“The Legislature and the Governor should focus on crafting a budget that will keep Wisconsin on track and create opportunities for our residents and businesses to succeed.”
Mikalsen said no one will succeed if Republicans sign off on a budget that fattens the state’s structural deficit.
Despite a healthy $1.8 billion budget surplus projected over the next two years, Evers’ spending plan would create a $2 billion budget shortfall — between projected revenue and the myriad government programs the governor wants to fund. If Republicans give in to even a portion of Evers’ “Christmas tree budget,” they will be aiding and abetting significant increases in the state’s structural deficit, Mikalsen said.
“That is unacceptable to Sen. Nass,” he said. “We fought all these years to get it down to an $860 million structural deficit. It should get lower, but it certainly should not increase.”
He said Nass cannot abide by the notion of “spend, spend, spend and worry how to pay for it later.”
“If we are the party of fiscal responsibility, Sen. Nass has said it often, we need to live up to that,” the legislative aide said.