Marriage Penalty Fix, Lower Bonding, Tax Deduction for Teachers Overshadowed by Gutting of Open Records Law
MacIver News Service | July 3, 2015
The transportation budget will borrow $500 million instead of the $1.3 billion that Gov. Walker proposed, and another $350 million in bonding will be kept under the discretion of the Joint Committee on Finance for potential use on either major highway development or state highway rehabilitation projects throughout the state. Nearly $210 million was deleted from the high-profile Southeast Freeway Megaprojects budget, which includes the Milwaukee Zoo Interchange project. Work will continue on the core of the Zoo Interchange project in Milwaukee, but funding is not provided for the final phase of that project, the north section, which was expected to begin in 2017. The potential $850 million in bonding is on top of the Department of Transportation’s base biennial budget of nearly $6.4 billion.
New revenue estimates for the transportation fund came out this week showing that the fund is expected to end fiscal year 2017 with an end balance of $114 million, which is $29.3 million more than originally projected.
Joint Finance approved Gov. Walker’s proposals to limit bicycle and pedestrian accommodations on transportation projects and eliminate the wasteful Community Sensitive Solutions program. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent every year on unneeded bike paths and elaborate beautification on state transportation projects.
Members of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) acknowledged that five major road projects, including the Verona Road/US-151 project south of Madison, will be delayed for two years. However, LFB officials also confirmed that this budget’s overall bonding level is lower than any budget in recent memory.
A study will also be commissioned to investigate long-term financing solutions for transportation as legislators continue to look for ways to raise money for future projects. The study will be open to analyzing tolling options, a mechanism that is not currently used in Wisconsin. To keep an eye on spending priorities, JFC commissioned an audit of the major highway development program to make sure traffic statistics and other factors are lining up with proposed highway projects.
On taxes, Joint Finance approved an increase the standard deduction for married couples and aligned Wisconsin’s alternative minimum tax (AMT) to the federal AMT structure. In 2016, a married couple filing jointly will receive a standard deduction of $19,030 and marrieds filing separately will receive $9,030 each. Currently, the combined standard deduction for a couple filing as individuals would be greater than their joint standard deduction. Many legislators think this this unfairly penalizes married couples wishing to file jointly. Federalizing the AMT will result in $6 million in taxpayer savings in the 2015-17 biennium the move is projected to save $55 million in the 2017-19 biennium.
JFC approved Gov. Walker’s request to add 102 auditors at the Department of Revenue, whose main task is recovering tax revenue from outside the state. A sales tax exemption was included for construction materials used to build schools, municipal buildings and other buildings for non-profit entities in the state.
Legislators sparred over perceived tax cuts for the rich versus targeted tax cuts to the poor and middle class. At one point, JFC Co-Chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) insisted that less tax liability for any Wisconsin resident is a step forward because they get to keep more of their hard-earned money.
After a break, the Committee took up the infamous 999 “wrap-up” motion. The 999 totaled 24 pages and included 67 policy changes.
The biggest news to come out of the 999 motion was the inclusion of a blanket exemption for the Legislature from Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. The move caught everyone by surprise and would exempt all legislative communications and documents from being publicly requested save for communications with those outside the legislature. During debate on the open records provision, Fiscal Bureau staff confirmed that this blanket exemption applies to all state and local politicians in Wisconsin, not just state legislators. The motion also stripped language from state statutes that require “living wages” be paid to employees and added language that sets a normal minimum wage of $7.25, as well as separate minimum wages for camp counselors, tipped employees, golf caddies and opportunity employees.
Other highlights of the 999 included the return of course options for high school students who want to take college classes, allowing the Gateway Technical College District Board, the College of Menominee Nation and Lac Courte Orielles Ojibwa College to authorize charter schools in their respective districts, and changing the recertification requirements for public sector labor unions. Unions would need the support of 51 percent of all members to gain recertification, instead of 51 percent of just the voting members as current law stipulates.
JFC Co-Chairs Alberta Darling and John Nygren praised the work of the committee in a press release early Friday morning:
“The budget plan we passed continues to move Wisconsin in the right direction. It’s important to protect our state’s hard-working taxpayers, and we are happy to report that this budget does not raise sales, income, or property taxes.”
All three motions passed 12-4 across party lines, and the final budget also passed 12-4 to sew up Joint Finance deliberations. The budget will make its way through both the House and Assembly next week.