For most Wisconsinites, ringing in the new year meant making resolutions and enjoying a break from school or work. But for Gov. Tony Evers, 2023 ushered in Wisconsin’s hectic biennial state budget process.
The state budget cycle resets every two years, beginning in an even year and ending in an odd year. The governor’s office will present an executive draft budget in February based on funding requests from state agencies submitted last fall.
Evers recently shared some of his plans for the upcoming budget with The Daily Cardinal. His primary spending goals included renovating college campuses, offering more adequate mental health care, lowering tuition costs and attempting to close the K-12 achievement gap.
Wisconsin ranked 41st in the nation for total revenues going to higher education — the lowest ranking of any Midwestern state — according to a Wisconsin Public Radio report from 2020.
Evers anticipated a “significant increase” in his budget request for the University of Wisconsin System as part of an effort to increase higher education funding.
“We want to keep education as affordable as possible,” Evers said.
The UW System requested $24.5 million in state funding last month for its “Wisconsin Tuition Promise,” a program that would fund up to four years of tuition and fees for students attending any UW campus whose annual household adjusted income is $62,000 or less.
The UW System plans to privately fund the program during the 2023-24 academic year and cover subsequent years with state funding. An estimated 8,000 low-income students would benefit from the Wisconsin Tuition Promise in its first four years, according to the UW System.
Evers is also optimistic about funding new construction projects and updates to educational buildings on the UW-Madison campus, which he believes will meet student needs and expand academic opportunities.
The governor specifically mentioned proposed projects to demolish and replace “the Shell” at Camp Randall, reconstruct Engineering Hall and revamp humanities infrastructure.
The Wisconsin State Building Commission approved $253 million last month for a list of state building projects that included planning and delivery methods for the Shell replacement and Engineering Hall projects.
“It isn’t like they’re going to happen overnight, but they are all still in the budget,” Evers said. “I anticipate that they will be approved.”
Evers said he and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin have chatted about the university’s funding priorities. Mnookin will be “actively involved” in fighting for higher education funding during the upcoming budget process, according to Evers.
He hopes other university leaders will do the same.
“I met with the Board of Regents the other day, and I encouraged the chancellors to be active in advocating for their campuses because that hasn’t been the case in the past,” Evers said.
Record-high state surplus
Wisconsin is headed into the upcoming budget cycle with a record-high projected $6.6 billion budget surplus, according to the Department of Administration.
Evers said he wants to see lawmakers use the surplus money to increase funding for public K-12 schools, broadband internet expansion and better mental health resources.
Wisconsin schools had 166 referendums on the ballot in 2022 — the highest number in 21 years, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. School officials told the State Journal they expect to face a continued fiscal cliff as federal COVID-19 relief funds run out without additional investment from the Legislature.
“Schools have to hold a referendum many times just to keep the doors open,” Evers said. “That [seems] to be a bad way to run a school district.”
Wisconsin currently spends 6% less on public primary and secondary schooling per student than the national average, according to PBS Wisconsin. Wisconsin also had the widest score gaps of any U.S. state between Black and white students, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Evers said he was working with the Department of Public Instruction and State Superintendent Jill Underly on a new $10 million reading and literacy program aiming to close Wisconsin’s achievement gap.
Evers also supported broadband internet expansion as a tool to bridge Wisconsin’s educational divides and connect low-income kids to online learning resources.
“Those kids can't participate in any remote learning because they don't have the resources to either have internet or have the equipment to use [it],” Evers said. “It's an equity issue, and we need to address it directly.”
Surplus spending spats
Evers’ budget priorities face an uphill climb in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Republican leaders previously warned the Governor not to approach the budget surplus as a “blank check,” according to the Journal Sentinel, a sentiment reflecting the last four years of partisan gridlock among state leaders.
Relations between Evers and Republican leaders warmed following the 2022 midterm elections. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in November he and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) have spoken with Evers “more than they have in the past two years,” according to the Journal Sentinel.
Evers similarly said he hopes to reach more compromises.
“Well, we'll keep with it, we're a purple state as you know,” Evers said. “I think there are some things that are absolutely bipartisan, that we'll have some success on.”
“We’ve got a ways to go to determine how much bipartisanship there will be, but I sense there is more bipartisanship this time,” he added in reference to the upcoming budget cycle.
Both Evers and Republicans want to spend more on roads, K-12 education, tax reform and local government, according to the Journal Sentinel.
However, the two sides disagree on how to spend the money.
Republicans want major tax reform as well as more funding for private school vouchers and school choice. LeMahieu and Senate Republicans are eyeing a 3.5% flat income tax rate across all income brackets, according to the Journal Sentinel.
In contrast, Evers favors public K-12 school funding and said last month the flat tax was a “non-starter,” according to the Cap Times.
Evers also wants more financial assistance for local governments.
Local governments rely on property taxes to fund local services. However, the state limits the amount of money communities can raise through property taxes.
The ability of local services, such as medical care, to carry out their responsibilities has been hindered by tax revenues not keeping pace with property values in recent years, according to the Cap Times.
“They just have been unable to provide [services] in a serious way. There seems to be bipartisan interest in that,” Evers said.
Evers will present his full budget proposal during a public address at the Capitol building on Feb. 15. The budget process then moves to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which will conduct public hearings before drafting its own version of the budget this spring.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.