Republican lawmakers hear from public as they prepare to rewrite state budget

Republican lawmakers held their first public hearing Friday on a state budget they plan to rewrite from top to bottom.

Meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the 16-member Joint Finance Committee took testimony from the public on what lawmakers’ should include in their two-year spending plan. Republicans who lead the Legislature have said they plan to write a budget that is far different from the one Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed in February. 

Evers’ $91 billion plan would raise taxes by $1 billion, put an additional $1.6 billion toward schools and give the UW System its largest funding increase in two decades. Republicans have decried the tax increases and the size of the spending increases Evers has proposed. 

They have also said they will throw out many of Evers’ other recommendations, including his plans to legalize recreational marijuana, require background checks for all gun purchases, expand health care programs under Obamacare and repeal Act 10, the 2011 law that all but wiped out collective bargaining for most public workers.

RELATED:The day Scott Walker ‘dropped the bomb’: 10 years later, Act 10 maintains a firm grip on Wisconsin government

This week marked the start of the finance committee’s budget deliberations. In addition to Friday’s hearing, it was briefed by some state agencies on their operations.

On Friday, the legislators heard from local officials, business owners, firefighters, dentists, college students, environmentalists, librarians and others on a host of issues. Some asked for more funding for schools, some for prison reform and some for broader support for public transit. 

The legislators mostly listened Friday, with Republican Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green summoning speaker after speaker to come forward to have their say for a couple of minutes each.

In the coming weeks, the committee will hold two more in-person hearings — in Rhinelander and Menomonie — and one virtual hearing.

It is expected to vote on the budget piece by piece over several weeks starting in May. From there, it will go to the Assembly and Senate, which are expected to approve it before the new fiscal year starts on July 1. 

Evers can change their version of the budget with line-item vetoes. Wisconsin governors have some of the strongest veto powers in the country, but the state Supreme Court narrowed them in a decision last year. 

Influencing the budget debate this year is a massive influx of federal aid because of the coronavirus pandemic. The state, counties, municipalities and schools are receiving billions of dollars in aid.

In the latest round of federal funding, Evers will get control of $3.2 billion he can spend without consulting the Legislature. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.