Progress on Education Funding, but Transportation Still an Issue in Wisconsin Budget Negotiations

An agreement on education funding may be in sight, but Wisconsin lawmakers still have a long road ahead before they reach a deal on the state’s transportation budget.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee resumed work on Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year budget proposal on Thursday after a two-week hiatus prompted by stalled negotiations over those two areas.

As negotiations began to deteriorate early this month, Senate leaders raised the possibility of splitting the budget into separate proposals between the two houses, and Assembly Republicans proposed their own education plan designed to bring relief to school districts that spend less than most others.

Assembly members including Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and committee member Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, toured the state promoting their plan, which would direct an additional $92 million in revenue limit authority for school districts that spend less than most others and an additional $30 million for the state’s general schools funding mechanism than what the governor proposed in his own spending plan. At the same time, the proposal would offer about $70 million less than Walker’s proposed $649 million increase in per-pupil aid.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, dubbed the plan a nonstarter before it was even released, arguing it “raises property taxes and picks winners and losers within our school districts.”

But Senate Republicans have since shown a willingness to address low-spending districts, if not in the exact way proposed by their Assembly counterparts.

“I’m not thinking education will be that large of a stumbling block,” Nygren told reporters on Thursday. “I do think transportation, their position with GPR borrowing, is going to be a stumbling block.”

Fitzgerald said last month Senate Republicans would likely pursue financing some roads borrowing with general purpose revenue. Walker’s proposal includes $500 million in borrowing, the lowest level since the 2001-03 state budget, but Assembly Republicans say that’s still too much.

Earlier this month, Fitzgerald said he doesn’t think Senate Republicans’ support has moved far from what Walker initially proposed in his transportation budget.

“The Senate wants more. The Assembly wants less. Goldilocks would say, that makes our budget just right,” Walker said last month.

Legislators are aiming to complete work on the budget before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called that an “artificial deadline” on Wednesday. If a new budget doesn’t pass by the start of the new fiscal year, state programs will continue to operate under the previous budget.