Walker proposes state budget with tax cut, school choice expansion

Budget would cut $5 million from public broadcasting, end DNR land purchases until 2028

Gov. Scott Walker is calling for a biennial budget that would cut property taxes, keep public school funding in Wisconsin largely flat over two years, cut some 400 state positions and drastically expand school choice programs in the state.

Walker rolled out his two-year budget to lawmakers in a speech Tuesday night.

“The budget plan we present tonight will help restore that American dream right here in Wisconsin,” Walker said.

The budget includes a property tax cut, given to taxpayers by sending money through the school-funding formula. The Walker administration said the amount would total more than $280 million, amounting to a $5-a-year tax cut for the average property taxpayer in Wisconsin. Walker had promised in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign to lower property taxes each year he is in office.

“Just as I promised, property taxes by the end of 2016 will be lower than they were in 2014,” Walker said in the speech. “That means lower property taxes for six years in a row.”

The governor is also proposing a number of education reform measures affecting K-12 and higher-education institutions in the state, including a statewide expansion and removal of the cap on students allowed into the school choice program, creation of a letter grade system of school report cards, and the previously released plans to cut the UW System by $300 million over two years and make the system a public authority.

“Tonight I am excited to announce plans to lift the cap on vouchers so more families like Dina’s can have the choice to find the best school for their children. Every child deserves the chance to succeed,” Walker said.

The school choice program provisions would allow parents in any school district in Wisconsin the opportunity to participate in the state school choice program, with the money for each student opting out of a public school going to the state, and then that money being pooled and distributed evenly to the private schools the students have chosen. Choice scholarships would be available to students under 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and only to new students switching from private to public schools. The expanded choice program would begin in the fall of 2015.

School choice has previously been vehemently opposed by public school administrators, and State Superintendent Tony Evers said it will lead to degrading the quality of public education.

Evers said Tuesday night that Walker’s proposal to not increase funding for public schools while expanding the private school voucher program is “not a good starting point.”

Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said in a statement that Walker’s budget prioritizes private school vouchers and the authorization of independent charters over real support for schools and students.

“Private school vouchers and independent charter schools have no consistent record of improving education for children, but both will take resources away from every district in the state under this proposal. Rather than invest in what we know works, this proposal puts resources in strategies with mixed results at the expense of our public school students,” Cheatham said.

Walker also includes his own school accountability measures in the budget, applying letter grades to schools, but not creating any sanctions for failing schools. He also allows districts to opt out of federal Common Core educational standards. State lawmakers have offered their own versions of school accountability bills already this session.

But unlike Assembly Republicans, Walker is not calling for there to be sanctions for failing schools.

Evers said he thinks the idea of sanctions is now dead.

But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos voiced concerns about Walker’s approach, saying it didn’t make sense not to include sanctions as part of the plan.

Evers also opposes assigning letter grades to schools, saying that gives the wrong impression and doesn’t accurately reflect a school’s performance.

The budget will cut some 400 positions, including 60 third-shift tower positions at state prisons, 66 positions at the Department of Natural Resources considered “no longer serving the core mission of the agency,” and more than 90 positions eliminated by consolidating some state agencies. Of the 400, the Walker administration said 200 are positions that have been vacant for more than a year, and some employees may be able to use civil service standing to shift into other jobs.

The budget also includes a cut to Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, through their funding mechanism in the Education Communications Board. Walkers plan cuts $2.7 million from ECB, with that cut directed toward Wisconsin Public Television and Radio. The governor’s office said they expect that they will “be able to make up the difference in program revenue through grants, gifts and private donations as program revenue has come in ahead of estimates in recent budgets.”

Walker’s spending plan borrows a total of $1.56 billion to pay for transportation projects in the state and to build a new Milwaukee Bucks Stadium in Milwaukee. Already many Republican lawmakers have expressed concern with the level of borrowing and said they will have discussions about it in their debate over the bill.

The state’s stewardship program would also essentially come to a halt, with Walker proposing a moratorium on new purchases of land to prevent development until 2028 to decrease the amount of debt service the state pays for the program.

The budget also offers additional details about plans the governor had previously released, including the UW System plan, and drug testing for state benefits. Under the new public authority model, UW System employees, nearly 35,000 people, would no longer be considered state positions, although they would still be eligible for state benefits and the Wisconsin Retirement System.

“With this in mind I ask the Legislature to give our bold reform idea a serious look. As the father of a UW student I have a real interest in the success of our state system, and I believe this will make the University of Wisconsin stronger in the years to come,” Walker said.

UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement the proposed cut is too much.

“We are willing to do our part in solving the state’s fiscal challenges, but a $300 million cut to the base of the University of Wisconsin System is too much,” Blank said. “While the UW System has found and will continue to find ways to operate more efficiently, this cut to higher education, the largest in state history, goes too far, particularly given the previous reductions in state support in past state budgets.”

Under the drug-testing program proposed by the governor, a private contracting company would screen and drug test some recipients of unemployment, Food Share and Medicaid funds. If the first drug test is failed, the individual would be required to enter substance abuse treatment but could continue to receive benefits. If a second test is failed, they would lose benefits.

There are some increases in fees, including for campsites and vehicle entry to state parks.