By Miles Maguire
Coming out of the pandemic, Wisconsin is in a surprisingly strong financial position – paving the way for a state budget that, depending on who’s talking, is either a rare example of cutting government taxes while expanding services, or a missed opportunity to raise federal funds that will force cities like Oshkosh to seek new sources of revenue.
“The main highlights of this budget include a $ 3.4 billion tax cut, historic levels of funding for schools, and significant investments in health and personal care workers,” the Republican Senator said. Dan Feyen, whose District 18 includes the southern part of Winnebago County.
He said other benefits for local residents included 2% increases for state employees, increased spending on youth apprenticeship and more funding for law enforcement training.
But Assembly Minority Leader Oshkosh Democrat Gordon Hintz sees it differently.
“It’s amazing to consider that a state with over $ 6 billion in new revenue can do so little for communities like Oshkosh,” he said. “Instead of maximizing state and federal government resources to invest in public schools, UW and technical colleges, and local government, the Republicans focused on undermining Governor Evers and play politics with the budget. “
Big win for UW Oshkosh
Among local institutions, the biggest winner is UW Oshkosh, who is expected to get $ 27 million to complete renovations to the university building that houses its College of Education and Social Services.
The backstory of how this long-delayed and uncontroversial bill entered the budget is evidence of the state’s deep partisan division.
Hintz has been pushing for this job for a decade and persuaded the governor to include it in his capital budget proposal, but Republican leaders in Madison were not interested in seeing the Democratic lawmaker win for his district.
They were also annoyed by the university’s patchy social media posts, which appeared to give more weight to a tour of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Hintz and less to a similar visit from Republican lawmakers.
When the UW Oshkosh Project made its way into the Republican version of the budget, Leavitt was quick to congratulate a member of the Oshkosh Coven, but it wasn’t Hintz. “State Representative Michael Schraa has been a driving force in helping to convey the need and value of this project to his colleagues in the current state legislature and over the past two fiscal years,” said Leavitt.
“I fought extremely hard to get it,” said Schraa, whose district includes parts of the city, but especially the surrounding more suburban and rural areas. He explained that Hintz’s leading role in the minority party ran counter to the project.
To rally support, Schraa organized a tour of the building with key Republicans to convince them of the importance of funding and then took her case to party leaders. “I went to the mat and fought for it,” Schraa said. “It was huge and, I think, extremely useful to the city.”
Feyen said Republican lawmakers decided to return most of the state’s surprise $ 4.4 billion budget surplus to taxpayers, by cutting income and property taxes and removing taxes. personal land.
“These tax cuts will help the citizens of Oshkosh by lowering taxes for an average family by about $ 1,200 through the combined income tax and property tax cuts,” said Feyen.
Such cuts, however, are not evenly distributed, and analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau shows that most of the benefits of a large chunk of the tax cut will go to wealthier residents, especially those earning more. $ 150,000 per year. According to this analysis, households earning $ 35,000 per year would get $ 49 while those earning $ 250,000 to $ 300,000 would get $ 2,283.
The elimination of the property tax is mainly a boon for the business sector, but could have a particular impact at the local level due to the importance of tourism and the concentration of businesses in the area which depend on ‘bars and restaurants. boats, ”said Ethan Hollenberger, who served as transition director for County Executive Jon Doemel.
From a county perspective, the budget that Republicans passed in the legislature has a lot of bright spots, he said.
These include new transportation funding, grants to upgrade 911 systems, increases in reimbursements for nursing homes and Medicaid services, money for subsidized guardianship for foster care placements. and more state dollars for conservation and stewardship.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which will receive $ 32 million, is the “program used to buy properties and make improvements to public lands statewide,” Feyen said. “This is the program that has helped revitalize the River Walk in Oshkosh. “
Cities left behind
In other respects, however, the city and its taxpayers have been left behind in the budget, which faces an uncertain fate when considered by the governor.
From college to prison, Oshkosh hosts an unusually high number of state operations, providing policing and other services without full reimbursement. The uncovered costs amount to $ 2 million per year and accrue to the residents of the city.
The governor had responded to Hintz’s calls to increase municipal service payments, but Republicans withdrew the boost from their budgets. Republicans have also refused to change other ways the state distributes tax revenue to cities, which City Manager Mark Rohloff called “disappointing.”
“The concerns of the cities have been ignored,” he said. “The state does not share the revenue it claims to share.”
When the state decides to withhold taxes collected locally, “they telegraph to cities, ‘Raise your property taxes because we’re not helping you.’ “
Rohloff said now is the time to discuss how taxpayers want to pay for municipal services.
“We need to have a conversation about how we want to fund city services, which is really a conversation about how we want to fund police, firefighters and the streets,” Rohloff said. “The public isn’t telling me to do less. It tells me to do more.
He said relying on higher property taxes is not a good solution and that other alternatives, such as local sales taxes or fees, should be considered.
The city will receive additional funding for transportation, but the program is structured to primarily benefit cities, Rohloff said.
Money for education, but there could have been more
One area of the budget that Republicans and Democrats see completely differently is K-12 education.
“Under Governor Evers’ original budget proposal, the Oshkosh Region School District would have received more than $ 21 million in new funding. Unfortunately, the Republicans’ budget brings only $ 1.3 million in new funding, ”Hintz said. “It is incredibly disappointing that children have been such a low priority.”
But Feyen argues that Oshkosh schools will benefit from the Republican budget.
According to his calculations, “Schools will receive an average of $ 2,900 more per student on average. These are historic investments in the education of our state and they will greatly help my community, which is home to two of the largest school districts in this state, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, ”he said.
“This state budget will invest more than $ 16 billion in education,” Feyen said. “That’s $ 678,537,000 more than the previous state budget.” An additional $ 350 million will go “to the existing Rainy Day Fund which could be used for future education funding.”
“Republicans have turned down more than $ 1.6 billion in federal money and have made politics with state dollars to meet minimum federal requirements while having minimal impact on education,” said Hintz.
Feyen disagrees. “As a result of our state’s commitment to education spending, we have secured additional federal funding of $ 1.5 billion for schools,” he said. “We offered to spend more than ever on mental health, special education and expensive transportation. “
“The heart of the matter is that after record revenues, we have the resources to deliver a targeted tax cut and invest more money in Wisconsin classrooms without jeopardizing the future of Wisconsin,” said Hintz. “The Republican talking points won’t erase the fact that here in Winnebago County and across Wisconsin, our public schools now receive much less funding for classrooms than in the Evers government budget.”
School board president Bob Poeschl did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
New funding will benefit other state operations in Oshkosh, including the Winnebago Institute of Mental Health and correctional officers from the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, according to Schraa. For example, new investments elsewhere in the state will ease some of the pressure on the local hospital for short-term admissions, and prison officers will be eligible for seniority rewards paid in cash, he said. declared.
Will the governor sign?
The state Senate is due to complete its work on the budget on Wednesday, the last day of the fiscal year, and send it to Governor Evers, who has said he could veto the plan, in whole or in part.
Schraa believes most of the budget will survive the governor’s veto pen, which he can use to reject the spending plan entirely or to remove or revise certain passages.
“We are giving the governor a budget that it will be very difficult for him to veto,” Schraa said. “There will be some things he vetoed, but overall I can’t imagine him not signing this budget.”