The Winners and Losers in the 2013-2015 Wisconsin State Budget

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Legislation and war have both been described as sausage grinding, and this year’s budget process had aspects of both war and sausage making. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, a famous German general once said. The budget signed by Governor Scott Walker is significantly different than the one he proposed.

Despite complete control of the budget process by Republicans, there were real fights over policy and different visions for state government. Now that the smoke has cleared from the state budget, we can survey the political battlefield and see the winners and losers.


State Assembly Democrats and Minority Leader Peter Barca:

The Wisconsin legislature leaves few options for the minority party other than just sit there and take the lumps. However, minority parties have an obligation to present an alternative to the majority.

The Assembly Democrats only offered one amendment and that was because one of their members went off the reservation. Even former Democratic Party leader Joe Strohl criticized the silence of the Assembly Democrats. Voters can divine the intentions of the Assembly Democrats from their press releases, but Barca and his fellow Assembly Democrats went from irrelevant to invisible.

Barca was a leader for Democrats when the Democratic State Senators flew Wisconsin. Apparently Barca is only capable of leadership in a vacuum.


Not since Chico’s Bail Bonds was a sponsor of the Bad News Bears have bail bonds been more associated with losing. Since nobody in law enforcement is willing to stand up for this law enforcement measure, Republican leaders should stop their efforts to get bail bonds included in state budgets.


The state budget borrows more and spends more. The $70.12 billion budget is a four percent increase over the last biennial budget.

Part of the new spending is fulfillment of the state’s promise for BadgerCare, covering everyone below 100% of the federal poverty line with state insurance coverage. Part of the borrowing is to recover from the raids by Governor Jim Doyle on the transportation fund and for road work deferred during that administration.

Nonetheless, after two budget cycles Republicans have not undone the Doyle-era tax increases. If we are to make Wisconsin more competitive, Wisconsin needs to spend less, borrow less, and tax less.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett:

Barrett lost on the residency issue and on the trolley issue. Now he’s going into the deep-end of politics (along with the Milwaukee Common Council) by supporting a “nullification” theory that somehow Milwaukee doesn’t have to follow state laws he deems unconstitutional, regardless whether the constitutionality was established in a court of law. Some Assembly Republicans were correctly criticized for this position in regards to Obamacare. Next thing you know Barrett will be asking to see the governor’s birth certificate.

Barrett should ask his buddy, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, how to get what he wants from a Republican legislature.

State Senator Dale Schultz:

Vikings once placed their dead on ice floes and set them adrift (before global warming). Schultz walked out onto that ice floe all by himself. He was the only Republican in the state senate to vote against the budget, and his opposition proved as irrelevant as the Democrats’.

The Nanny State:

Republicans inserted into the budget a provision that bans local units of government from regulating food based upon size, nutritional value or calorie count. So go ahead, have a Big Gulp and a triple bacon cheeseburger. They can’t stop you. Just don’t have an after-dinner cigarette.

School choice:

When other states are moving to full state-wide expansion of private school vouchers, Walker proposed a very modest expansion for only those districts with two or more failing schools. Even that was too much for the legislature, which created a pilot program for statewide eligibility for 500 kids next year.

The final result shows the hollowness of the “local control” and “rationing” complaints of State Senator Mike Ellis. However, that should be cold comfort to school choice supporters who should have expected and received a lot more in this budget.


State Representative Dale Kooyenga:

Kooyenga was one of the Republican state representatives who found the surplus hiding in the UW System books, which allowed for a tuition freeze in the budget. Kooyenga was also responsible for requiring the city of Milwaukee, and not regional utility ratepayers, to pay for the cost of relocating any utility infrastructure for the proposed Milwaukee streetcar.

So Kooyenga was already a winner when he proposed simplifying the state tax code and cutting the state income tax much more than what the governor proposed. These proposals were (with some modification) adopted into the final budget. Now editors across the state are adding Kooyenga to the spell check dictionaries.’


Not only did the city of Racine get a harbor dredging in the budget, the kringle was named the official pastry of Wisconsin.

The uninsured poor:

Walker’s healthcare plan survived the budget process intact. That means 100% of those under the federal poverty line will be covered under the state’s Medicaid plan. No more waiting lists for coverage. Those above the poverty line that were previously eligible for the state’s Medicaid program will now be eligible for subsidized coverage from the Obamacare exchanges.

The governor estimates there will be 224,000 less uninsured individuals in Wisconsin because of his plan.


The state budget cuts income taxes by $648 million, bringing tax relief to all income levels. According to the Walker Administration, “Nearly 80 percent of the tax cut goes to people who fit President Obama’s definition of the middle class.”

The budget eliminates the inheritance tax and includes a tax deduction for private school tuition. The budget also limits local property tax increases and requires local units of government to reduce taxes by the amounts they would raise if they impose new fees.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald:

Fitzgerald managed to hold the invertebrates in his caucus together long enough for the budget to pass with only one defection, Schultz. The budget passed despite the public statements by members criticizing the tax cut

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism:

Let’s face it. Before Republicans tried to throw them off of the University of Wisconsin campus, how many people even knew about the organization? Perhaps Bill Lueders should send Assembly Speaker Robin Vos a thank-you card.

Given the bipartisan backlash against removing the Center from the UW campus, they’ll probably be occupying those offices for quite some time.

Univeristy of Wisconsin System parents and students:

The budget includes a two-year freeze for tuition. That the legislature uncovered a secret surplus on the UW system books is even better.

UW System officials will hopefully learn the lesson and be more transparent with the legislature. The legislature has hopefully learned that they can’t trust the current UW administration and will be more vigilant in looking for savings in the state university system, meaning lower tuition costs in the long run.

The legislature also ended the automatic collection of fees from students to support a “student lobbying organization,” United Council, saving every student three bucks a semester. It means some student government types will have to find honest work.

Governor Scott Walker:

Gets a budget through, without the rancor from two years ago, that has a bigger tax cut than the one he proposed. It spends more on public school education but it also spends more on private school choice.

The Capital Times’ Jack Craver wrote that the vetoes made the governor appear more moderate than the legislature, but that is a misperception. By vetoing the special interest portion of the bill for bail bonds and the eviction of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Walker gained some non-partisan credibility while not sacrificing on the core principles.

Milwaukee residents:

Much has been made of a supposed, “war on Milwaukee,” but this budget benefits the residents of the largest city in Wisconsin. Municipal employees are no longer held captive to residency requirements. The budget spends $517 million for reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, and $226 million on the Hoan Bridge renovation project.

It effectively kills the streetcar project, saving Milwaukee taxpayers from those ongoing operating costs for a boutique transit system that wouldn’t serve most Milwaukee residents. It also ends the dream (temporarily) of expanding such a system to far-flung corners of the county at taxpayers’ expense.

The state budget also clears the way for the use of the Downtown Transit Center site for the 44-story Couture hotel and apartments on Milwaukee’s lakefront. The budget provision clarifies that the proposed development is not in the lake bed.

If there is War on Milwaukee, the residents won.