Let Neptune strike ye dead, Wisconsin

There’s a lot of good in Tony Evers’ budget proposal, and Republicans are having none of it.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

There’s a lot of good in Tony Evers’ budget proposal, and Republicans are having none of it.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our new recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) last week compared Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal to Oprah giving away cars (“a billion for you, a billion for you…“). As if Vos thinks spending taxpayer dollars on programs that benefit most, if not all Wisconsinites, is a bad thing?

And of course he trots out the old “excessive spending” canard, because everything’s excessive when you’re hell-bent on austerity. Evers’ budget does spend $103.8 billion over the course of two years, but still leaves a $31 million surplus and cuts taxes by 10% for individuals earning under $100,000, and for married couples earning under $150,000. 

Meanwhile, the Republican alternative is a flat tax that would spend $5 billion per year giving Wisconsin’s wealthiest a tax break (that, frankly, they don’t need) while raising taxes on everyone else. It’s telling that Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) accused Evers of doing exactly what Republicans’ flat tax would do: making cuts to income tax while raising taxes elsewhere. Instead of substantively engaging with Evers’ proposal, Born stated that the Republican majority in the Legislature will “continue to do tax reform that moves us in that direction [toward a flat tax].”

Evers’ budget also includes:

  • A $2.6 billion increase for K-12 schools and setting shared revenue for municipalities at 20% of state sales tax so school boards and local governments don’t have to rely so heavily on property owners to fund the basic functions of government.
  • A $305 million increase for University of Wisconsin System campuses, a nearly $33 million increase for technical colleges, and a $17 million increase for the Wisconsin Grant Program so the state can catch up to others on state financial aid and make its university system more affordable.
  • $500 million to expand access to mental health and $270 million for the “Get Kids Ahead” program, which focuses on student mental health.
  • $240 million for paid 12-week family and medical leave for private-sector employees. 
  • $175 million for renter support programs, such as free legal assistance and funding for municipalities to improve rental properties.
  • $100 million to combat water pollution and contamination, particularly from PFAS.
  • $2 million to establish the Office of Election Transparency and Compliance to address questions and complaints about potential election law violations.
  • $172,700 for the Wisconsin Elections Commission and Department of Transportation to implement automatic voter registration.
  • Paying off $380 million of transportation debt so more funding can go to actual repairs instead of debt payments.
  • Investing in several programs and increasing tax credits to make child care more affordable for families and provide support to providers.
  • Eliminating the state tax on student loan forgiveness.

This list is just scratching the surface because, no, I have not read the entire almost-800 page budget proposal. The bigger point of these highlights is the variety of people who will benefit from these proposals: children, young adults, parents, parents-to-be, renters, cyclists, drivers, and anyone who votes, pays taxes, or drinks water. 

But Born and Vos have already said that once again, they’re going to scrap Evers’ budget and start over. The more conciliatory stance Vos took after the 2022 election turns out to have just as brief a shelf life as anything else the Speaker says.

The whole point of government is that we all put money into a pot and then invest that money in things that are not profitable but benefit everyone. The classic example economists give is lighthouses. There’s no incentive for one shipping company to build a lighthouse because there’s no realistic way for them to have exclusive use or charge other companies to use it. It makes much more sense for coastal communities to collect funding from all shipping companies to build and run the lighthouse, since they all benefit from not crashing their ships onto the rocks. 

Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature seems to believe that the goal is to install the bare minimum of lighthouses, prioritizing the locations that benefit them and their political allies. If there’s a spot they don’t use that needs one, well, that’s someone else’s problem. They’ve got $7 billion in surpluses and are determined to turn them into donor kickbacks via tax cuts for the rich. And then they wonder why young people are leaving the state. Maybe they’d rather live somewhere that prioritizes everyone’s well-being, instead of letting some of us run aground.

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