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Walker budget calls for more education funding

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker called for new spending on education and a reduction in taxes in his budget presentation last week to Wisconsin lawmakers.

The Republican governor said the impact of Act 10 policies issued in 2011 have led to reinvestments in the state reflected in the two-year budget he outlined Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Capitol.

"In other words, our fiscal reforms have been successful," Walker said.

The budget announcement received a cool reception from legislative Democrats, including Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who said "governors like to put the good news in headlines and the bad news in small print."

"Over the next several weeks, we will learn more about the small print details when the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau releases their budget summary," said the Alma Democrat, whose Senate district includes Pierce and Pepin counties. "Until then, Wisconsin citizens would be well advised to reserve judgment on Gov. Walker's plan."

Democrats also criticized transportation plans in the package, saying Walker doesn't adequately fund road projects.

Republicans, including Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, lauded Walker's budget plan. The freshman legislator said the governor's call for lower taxes and greater investment in education earned high marks.

"Now the devil's in the details," Zimmerman said.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, also said she's awaiting details — including financial reports from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau — but called Walker's proposals for increased education funding "encouraging."

"That was welcome news," she said.

Walker's budget includes $11.5 billion for K-12 education, which includes increases for both 2018 and 2019 in per-pupil student aid. The budget includes new money for rural school aid, school social workers, early college credit costs and performance-based funding for Milwaukee public schools.

A portion of those education dollars will go to expanding charter schools and school vouchers, which provide state funds for students wishing to attend private schools.

"I want every child to succeed, and I trust parents to make the right decision for their children," Walker said.

His budget also calls for a 5 percent tuition reduction for Wisconsin residents enrolled in undergraduate programs in the UW-System. The budget request covers the $35 million to backfill the tuition cut and offers $100 million in new higher education spending.

In a prepared statement, UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen said he was in attendance for the budget address. He said he was "very encouraged" by the UW funding request.

"There is broad understanding that public higher education is key to the state's future, including developing the talent needed to move Wisconsin forward," he said, adding that he'll continue working with elected leaders during the budget process "to ensure the best possible outcome for the UW-System and our campus."

Zimmerman said he backs the tuition cut proposal and also supports Walker's plan to tie $42.5 million in new funding to performance results at the state's universities.

"I love it," he said. "We have to have a measuring stick."

Harsdorf said she's OK with the concept of performance funding but is waiting to see how certain metrics are evaluated before she offers full-fledged support.

"That needs some work," she said.

The UW-System proposal also allows students to opt out of paying segregated fees, which go toward activities and services, including things like campus media.

"Allowing an opt-out helps students make the decisions on what they do and do not want to fund," according to a statement from Walker's office.

Walker said his budget will lower Wisconsin property taxes and would eliminate the state portion on property tax bills. The governor said income taxes would also go down under his plan, identifying $592 million in new tax relief.

"Now is not the time to raise taxes," Walker said, listing the state's gas tax among those he proposes not to hike — a likely signal for fellow Republicans backing a gas tax increase.

Though she voiced general support for Walker's budget, Harsdorf said one item left her with concern: a proposal allowing public employees to be self-insured, a measure the governor said will save $60 million in the budget cycle.

Harsdorf feared that plan, where the state pays medical benefits directly, rather than through HMOs, could have implications in the private market.

"The jury's still out in my mind," she said. "I have reservations."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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