Republicans tweak budget for passage; Evers mum on veto

June 25, 2019

 Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos joins with fellow Republicans in the Assembly chamber before a planned to vote to pass the GOP's version of the state budget on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Madison, Wisconsin.

MADISON   Republicans proposed last-minute changes to the state budget on Tuesday to appease skeptical conservatives just hours ahead of the state Assembly vote, saying their plan is fiscally responsible and should be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The changes include slightly reducing a property tax increase, giving towns more money for roads, allowing Tesla to sell cars directly to customers in Wisconsin and spending more to increase salaries for prosecutors and hire more across the state.

Evers, and fellow Democrats who don't have the votes to stop or change the plan, have said that it falls short of what is needed to expand health care access, fix the state's roads and fully fund education. Evers was reviewing the latest changes but had no immediate comment on his veto plans, said spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff.

The Assembly was to approve the two-year spending plan Tuesday evening, with the Senate following on Wednesday. It would then go to Evers, who has broad power to make changes through partial vetoes. He's also threatened to take the unprecedented step of vetoing the entire budget forcing lawmakers to start over.

The current budget runs through Sunday, but state government would not shut down if there is a stalemate. Instead, current spending levels would continue until the next two-year budget is enacted, however long that takes.

One of the changes Republicans planned to make was to replace the phrases "may not" and "shall not" with "cannot" throughout the budget, making it more difficult for Evers to reverse the intent of Republicans with a partial veto.

Evers has the power to strike individual words from the budget, which both Republican and Democratic governors have done in the past to undo the will of the Legislature.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, speaking to reporters before debate, said Republicans wanted to "veto proof" the budget as much as possible to thwart Evers from dramatically changing the spending plan.

Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget-writing committee, made the case during budget debate for Evers to sign the budget.

"We are in an era of divided government," Nygren said. "Neither side will get 100% of what they want and yet this budget is good for all Wisconsinites."

 Wisconsin Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz speaks out against the Republican version of the state budget up for Assembly approval on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in Madison, Wisconsin. Hintz was joined in the Assembly parlor by fellow Democrats and advocates for Medicaid expansion and other priorities Republicans killed in the budget.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, speaking before they saw the changes Republicans proposed, said he was waiting to see the final form of the budget before saying what action he thinks Evers should take.

"You don't have to veto the entire budget but you can still do significant sections of it," Hintz said. "Maybe that's the best way."

Democrats continued to push for items Republicans rejected. Those included expanding Medicaid to cover 82,000 more poor people and leverage $1.6 billion in federal spending for health care; raising gas taxes as a part of a long-term funding solution for roads; and increasing K-12 school aid by $1.4 billion, including $600 million for special education.

Republicans rejected Medicaid expansion, but are still directing about $588 million in new spending for health care needs. They are raising aid to K-12 schools by $500 million and opting for vehicle registration and titling fee increases to pay for roads, rather than a gas tax hike.

Republicans also reduce income taxes by about $450 million. That would cut income taxes on average by $75 per person in 2019 and by $136 in 2020. Evers proposed a higher income tax cut paid for by nearly ending a manufacturing tax credit program that Republicans protected.

The last-minute Republican amendment would reduce a property tax increase on the typical, median-valued home owner by $5 over the next two years. That would make the combined increase on the owner of a roughly $174,000 home $99 over two years, instead of $104, as the budget proposed by both Evers and the budget committee called for.

One item to be added to the budget would allow for electric-car manufacturer Tesla to be able to sell its vehicles directly to customers in Wisconsin. Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga has been pushing for the law change for two years.

Supporters argue that allowing Tesla to open dealerships in the state would give customers more choices and help foster competition in the free market. But opponents say it could put other car manufacturers, who are prohibited from operating their own dealerships, at a disadvantage.

Last-minute changes to Wisconsin state budget

MADISON, Wis. Highlights of the last-minute changes proposed by Republicans to the state budget on Tuesday, just before the state Assembly began debate on the two-year spending plan:

MILEAGE FEE: Any new fee on miles driven would have to be approved by the full Legislature, not just the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee. The committee had originally given itself the power to institute the new fee and toll roads. A study on both the mileage fee and tolling would continue, with the state Department of Transportation making a recommendation by December 2022.

PROPERTY TAXES: Spend more on a credit to reduce the increase in property taxes for the owner of a $174,000 median-valued home by $5 over the next two years. Under Gov. Tony Evers original plan, and the proposal advanced by the budget committee, property taxes would have increased $105 over two years. Under the GOP change, they would go up $99. That is a 2% increase in the first year and 1.6% in the second.

STOPPING VETOES: Replacing the phrases "may not" and "shall not" with "cannot" throughout the budget. That would make it more difficult for Evers to use his partial veto authority to undo the will of the Legislature by striking out one word.

TESLA DEALERS: The electric-car manufacturer Tesla would be able to open its own dealerships in the state to sell and service the vehicles. That gives them an exemption from current law which does not allow car manufacturers to own dealerships. This was a priority for Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, one of the GOP lawmakers who had the power to block the budget in the Senate.

ROADS: Give towns an additional $5 million for road repairs and projects.

PROSECUTORS: Spend $3.5 million more to increase salaries for assistant district attorneys and spend $3.6 million to add 35 more assistant district attorneys across the state.

GROUNDWATER: Deletes provisions in the finance committee's version of the budget that would have created a $3 million grant program for testing and remediating polluted private wells.

Evers signs bill targeting businesses moving out of state

MADISON Gov. Tony Evers has signed into law a bill that eliminates a tax benefit for companies that move out of Wisconsin.

The measure he signed Monday targets tax deductions businesses claim when they move. Under current law, a business may deduct from its income or tax liability all expenses paid to move from one location to another.

The new law that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support does not allow for businesses to deduct expenses if they move out of state. The state Department of Revenue does not anticipate the change will result in a significant change in taxes paid, likely less than $1 million a year.

Wisconsin justices say governor should oversee school policy

MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin's Supreme Court reversed itself Tuesday and allowed the governor to take control of public school policy from the state superintendent, a decision that could translate to a major victory for Republicans if they can defeat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in three years.

The decision won't have any immediate effect while Evers is in office. Evers, a former superintendent and teacher, appointed current Superintendent Carolyn Taylor to replace him and likely won't block any of her initiatives. But the ruling would come into play if a Republican defeats Evers in 2022. Thanks to the court's decision, that governor could block a liberal-leaning superintendent's initiatives.

The case revolved around the so-called REINS Act, a law Republicans passed in 2017 that requires state agencies to obtain the governor's permission before writing rules, regulations and policies. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, filed a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to decide whether the law applies to the state schools superintendent.

The justices ruled 4-3 in a separate case in 2016 that a nearly identical law requiring agencies to get gubernatorial approval before writing rules, regulations and policies was unconstitutional as applied to the superintendent because the position is an independent constitutional officer elected by the people.

The conservative-leaning court erased that precedent Tuesday, ruling 4-2 along ideological lines that the Wisconsin Constitution only grants the superintendent the power to supervise schools. The position's rule- and policy-making authority stems from the Legislature, which can change that authority as it sees fit.

"It is of no constitutional concern whether the governor is given equal or greater legislative authority than the (superintendent) in rule-making," Chief Justice Pat Roggensack wrote in the majority opinion.

She included a footnote justifying how the court could reverse itself. She wrote the 2016 opinion was fractured with two concurrences and failed to establish a "common legal rationale." As result there was no rationale to analyze, opening the door for another look at the issues.

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Shirley Abrahamson and Rebecca Dallet make up the court's liberal-leaning minority. Abrahamson, who is battling cancer, withdrew from the case. Bradley and Dallet complained in a dissent that WILL brought the lawsuit because it recognized that two justices who ruled the requirement doesn't apply to the superintendent in 2016, David Prosser and Michael Gableman, have since retired. Prosser's replacement, conservative Dan Kelly, served on WILL's advisory panel. Bradley and Dallet chastised the conservatives for disregarding binding precedent.

"Throwing caution to the wind, the majority disregards the principles that fundamentally underlie our legal system," Bradley wrote.

Lester Pines, an attorney for the state Department of Public Instruction, said it was obvious the court was going to rule in WILL's favor as soon as it took the case. The court's conservative majority is clearly inclined to expand Republican legislators' powers, he said.

"There are few constants in life but it's nice to know now that we can predict the outcome of cases before the Wisconsin Supreme Court before they're argued," he said.

Republicans have been trying for years to limit the superintendent's powers. The position is officially nonpartisan but liberal-leaning superintendents have controlled the office for nearly two decades. The GOP and its allies intensified their efforts in late 2017 in an attempt to weaken Evers as he prepared to mount a campaign against then-Gov. Scott Walker.

WILL has been pushing to expand the state's voucher school program. Students in the program can receive state subsidies to offset private school tuition. Evers has been a loud opponent of the program.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL, called the ruling a "huge win for democratic government."

Taylor issued a brief statement saying she was disappointed. Evers said in his own statement that the matter was decided in 2016.

"The facts didn't change in the last three years and neither did the meaning of the constitution," the governor said. "Only the composition of the court did."


Associated Press