ICYMI: “Unprecedented” Tax Collections Lead To Immediate $2.6 Billion Surplus, Joint Finance Committee Votes On DOT And Stewardship

Election bills dealing with absentee ballot applications, nursing home voting and the prohibition on outside special interests “helping” to administer an election all pass the State Senate

Bills to prohibit mandatory COVID vaccination and to prohibit vaccine discrimination get a hearing


June 14, 2021

“Unprecedented” Tax Collections Give Wisconsin $2.6 Billion Surplus In Current Fiscal Year

Updated revenue estimates last week show that the State of Wisconsin is expected to finish the current fiscal year (FY) with a $2.6 billion surplus and an even bigger $5.87 billion surplus by the end of the 2021-2023 budget, thanks in part to an “unprecedented” $4.4 billion more in tax collections, which is an 8.1% increase over a previous estimate. This incredible fiscal news is “based upon the strength of collections and the vastly improved economic forecasts for the remainder of this year and the next two years,” according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).

Of the $2.6 billion surplus at the end of FY21, $1.45 billion of the $2.6 billion is from higher than expected tax collections. $808 million of the surplus will be automatically transferred to the state Budget Stabilization Fund, better known as the Rainy Day Fund, at the end of June. This will bring the Rainy Day Fund’s balance to $1.57 billion.

LFB now estimates that the 2021-2023 state budget will end with a $5.87 billion positive general fund balance. The budget was originally projected to end with a $2.08 billion balance.

Governor Evers and Democrats seem poised to spend the surplus, while GOP leadership has suggested a fundamental rewriting of tax codes and delivering tax breaks to Wisconsinites. Read more about these developments here.


Joint Finance Committee Takes Action On DOT, Building Program, Land Stewardship, and More

The Joint Finance Committee (JFC) met twice last week to vote on budget items related to the Department of Transportation, Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Military Affairs, Department of Corrections, the building program, and the Volkswagen Settlement, among other items.

Among the major votes taken, JFC approved a transportation budget with increased general fund transfers to the transportation fund, cuts to public transit, and the lowest level of transportation bonding in 20 years. Under the JFC budget, transportation bonding would be at $224 million, as opposed to the $555.8 million in bonding that Governor Evers proposed.

JFC also voted to cut public transit funding in Milwaukee and Madison in half on a one-time basis this biennium. Milwaukee and Madison have benefited from the billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 aid that flowed into the state over the past year. Just the City of Milwaukee will receive $394.23 million in ARPA aid alone, which could be invested in public transit. The committee also approved $40 million in bonding for the I-94 east-west corridor reconstruction project.

The Committee passed a building program budget with $1 billion in total general fund supported borrowing (GFSB) and $1.5 billion in total costs for new and existing projects. A few of the questionable new building projects approved by JFC includes a $5 million new center for Beyond Vision, $40 million for a new Museum of Nature and Culture in Milwaukee, $1.4 million for exterior repairs on a historic boat house in Rock Island State Park, millions for toilet and shower facility replacements at various state parks, $14.3 million for phase 2 of a new “Immersive Welcome Experience” at Old World Wisconsin, and $25 million for state agency energy conservation projects.

In 2019, JFC voted to bond and spend $1.9 billion on the building program.

In addition, JFC voted to renew funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program for four years at $32 million per year, all funds. The GOP motion will decrease bonding for Stewardship by about 1/3rd.

Wisconsin taxpayers have already spent over a billion dollars for the government to buy private land. A billion dollars. From 2001-2021, Wisconsin has allocated $1,078,859,000 just to pay off the debt service for the Stewardship Program. State government has used the $1,078,859,000 in taxpayer money to purchase over a million and a half acres of land. As of 2020, Wisconsin State Government has purchased 1,622,300 acres of land through just the Stewardship Program alone.


Combined with county and federal government conservation acquisitions, 5,946,900 acres of Wisconsin land are publicly owned. That’s 17.16% of all the land in Wisconsin, just for conservation. That doesn’t include the rest of the government-owned land in the state.

While JFC did reduce bonding for the program for the next 4 years, they did not discuss the end game – when will government own enough property? The state just keeps buying and buying, with no end in sight or even discussed. Are we done once we hit 18% or 20%? How about 30%?


Election Bills Pass Through The Senate

Three bills concerning election integrity were passed through the Senate last week and are now awaiting Assembly votes. One bill, SB 204, relates to absentee ballot applications, unsolicited mailing or transmission of absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots, canvassing absentee ballots, and electronic voter registration.

SB 205 relates to absentee voting in certain residential care facilities and retirement homes. The bill also provides a penalty for employees at long-term care facilities who influence an individual to apply for or refrain from applying for an absentee ballot. SB 209 concerns the returning of absentee ballots to the office of the municipal clerk.

The Senate also voted on Assembly Bill 173, which addresses private resources used for election administration, and the appointment of election officials. This bill has passed both houses, and is on its way to the Governor’s desk.


Republican Legislators Seek To End The Enhanced Federal Unemployment Benefit

Given the labor crisis facing the state, Republicans have been eager to encourage constituents to get back to work. One way they are proposing to do this is by eliminating the enhanced federal unemployment benefit created as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. AB 336 would do just that. The bill would also prohibit the Department of Workforce Development from waiving any work search requirements for any reason relating to the pandemic.

AB336 has passed through both houses, and is on its way to the Governor’s desk. However, Evers has already said he “can’t imagine” he would sign the bill.

In a recent press conference, Senate Majority Leader, Devin LeMahieu (R- Oostburg) stated that he believes the labor crisis to be the number one issue facing the state today. Governor Evers, on the other hand, believes that equity should be the state’s top priority.

When asked earlier in the week what was fueling the labor crisis in Wisconsin, Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D -Oshkosh) attributed it to the fact that the Legislature hasn’t allowed for the expansion of BadgerCare or the legalization of marijuana.


State Supreme Court Rules Schools Were Unlawfully Closed By Dane County Public Health Officer’s COVID-19 Orders

In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last week that COVID-19 orders issued by Madison and Dane County Public Health Officer Janel Heinrich, which closed schools to in-person instruction, were “unlawful” and “unenforceable.” Writing the majority opinion, Justice Rebecca Bradley ruled that “(1) local health officers do not have the statutory power to close schools under Wis. Stat. § 252.03; and (2) Heinrich’s Order infringes the Petitioners’ fundamental right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed under Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.” Justices Zeigler, Roggensack, and Hagedorn agreed with the majority opinion, while Justices Dallet, Ann Walsh Bradley, and Karofsky dissented.

Read MacIver’s analysis on the Supreme Court’s decision here.


Executive Session Held For Bills Prohibiting COVID-19 Vaccination And Testing Requirements

The Assembly Committee On Constitution And Ethics held a recent hearing for five bills that address the looming threat of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination and testing at various businesses and institutions. Last week, the same committee held an executive session for the bills and all five were recommended for passage by the committee.

One of the bills, AB 299, will be debated on the Assembly floor this week Wednesday. AB 299 prohibits Wisconsin state and local governments, and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition for receiving services, gaining building access, or participating in any activities put on by the entity.

Up this week – Joint Finance to finish work on Gov. Evers’ state budget.

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