by Patti Wenzel, Third Coast Digest
he Joint Finance Committee has finished their work on the 2011-13 biennial budget, making alterations to Gov. Scott Walker’s original proposal. And while the Republican-dominated committee kept and even expanded some of Walker’s proposals, they did reverse some of the cuts.
The completed document didn’t come easy. Thousands of citizens attended four public hearings around the state, including protesters who disrupted a committee last week. At the meeting, a group of protesters (including several prominent community leaders) took turns reading the state and federal constitution while being dragged from the meeting room by state police.
Voces de la Frontera, a immigrants rights group, put out a call for more protesters throughout the week.
“It is imperative for us to return to the Capitol to continue to take action against the passage of this destructive budget,” the group’s website read. “The action yesterday is a call to you to join us at the Joint Finance Committee meeting today and every day that it reconvenes.”
Walker sought to expand school choice in Milwaukee by lifting enrollment limits, expanding income eligibility limits and opening up the program to all private schools within Milwaukee County. The JFC carried through with these proposals by increasing the income eligibility for Milwaukee Parental School Choice from 175% of the federal poverty line for new students ($38,937 for a family of four) and 225% of the FPL for continuing students to 300% of the FPL across the board. That translates into an annual income for a family of four of $75,000 being able to attend a choice school and receive a taxpayer voucher to do so.
Then the committee voted along partisan lines to also expand choice into new districts – Racine and Green Bay. Students in the Racine Unified School District (essentially the eastern half of Racine County) will be able to enroll in private and parochial schools beginning this fall at taxpayer expense. During the first year enrollment will be limited to 250 students; in year two enrollment increases to 500; in year three and beyond enrollment is unlimited.
Parental School Choice could also start as early as this fall in Green Bay if advocates can gather signatures totaling 25 percent of the student population of the district. The enrollment plan would be the same as Racine’s and income eligibility would be the same as Milwaukee’s.
Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee), one of four Democratic members of the JFC, questioned the idea of moving more money into the school choice program when public education funding is being cut by $700 million statewide.
Racine Unified School District Superintendent Jim Shaw said he doesn’t want choice in his district, saying that it will reduce the educational opportunities for children.
“School vouchers have been call ‘a dagger in the heart of public education’ and I think there’s some truth to that.”
He cited the March 2011 report that demonstrated Milwaukee choice students did no better than Milwaukee public school students academically. He added that the $6,000 voucher payment is taken away from the public school district, which hurts the students left behind and district taxpayers.
But JFC Co-Chair Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said even the Democrats didn’t eliminate school choice when they were in power.
“School choice is not a panacea, but it is better than the status quo,” he added.
Walker originally called for $800 million in public school aid cuts, including the elimination of school nurses, Advanced Placement courses and extra science, technology and math classes. The JFC restored $100 million of funding over the next two years, with no direction as to where the funds should go. Vos called the action “the restoration of public education funding.”
Walker also proposed breaking UW-Madison away from the UW System, making it an independent university with its own board of regents. That move would have allowed the school to independently control tuition, contracts and costs. The proposal was met with resistance from other UW schools and politicians, who said the move would lead to a two-tiered public university system across the state and make it more difficult for Wisconsin residents to enter the state’s flagship school.
Instead, the JFC adopted a block grant system for all UW campuses allocated by the UW Board of Regents. Each campus could spend the funds as they choose. Vos said any savings the individual schools would realize, such as energy savings, would be kept by the individual campuses.
UW System schools as a whole will still see $250 million in cuts as proposed by Walker, but the block grants will spread the cuts around to all the campuses more evenly. The Board of Regents would also be blocked from raising undergraduate tuition by more than 5.5 percent in each of the next two years.
Democrats were pleased to keep the university system intact, but worried that the $250 million cut would make it difficult for the system to maintain its academic standards.
“We’re saying (the system is) exceptional right now, so we need to be careful about how we’re treating it,” Grigsby said.
On a party-line vote, the JFC gave more to veteran public safety workers, by extending the exemption from pension and health insurance contributions to non-union police and fire fighters, typically management level officers. But those same non-union workers would not be able to bargain for the choice or design of their health insurance plan.
Then the JFC swung away from Walker’s complete exemption of police and fire fighters from the collective bargaining cuts, by requiring all newly hired public safety officers or officers who take a promotion when transferring to a new department to be under the same bargaining restrictions of other state and municipal employees.
They also proposed that any arbitration between public safety unions and communities put the greatest weight on local economic conditions when determining contracts.
Wisconsin Works (W-2)
Walker’s proposal to reduce the monthly W-2 payment by $20 (to $653 per month) made it through the committee along with a reduction to 24 months for participation in the program. The current federal time limit to receive benefits is five years.
The JFC also adopted the proposal that would allow the state to cut benefits without explanation to W-2 participants who violate work or education requirements; cut benefits without determining whether the participant is simply refusing to do so or has a good cause for violating requirements; eliminate any grace period when removing someone from the W-2 rolls, and reduce the amount of hours allowed in the educational programs to 12 per week.
The committee restored the W-2 job ready category to the program, where participants could receive job search assistance but no monetary payments.
Opponents to the job-ready category say the poor economy makes it even harder for people to find employment, even if they have an education or job history.
The JFC also maintained the Governor’s proposal to cut $20 million from Wisconsin Shares, the state’s child care program.
They also would require that the Department of Children and Families reward counties, agencies or tribes that identify fraud in the program, prohibit a Wisconsin Shares recipient from any gains made by a child care provider to attract clients (such as payments to place a child in a certain care service) and prohibit payments of subsidies for a child who is also a parent of a child.
Child care providers will also be required to submit to fingerprinting, which the Department of Justice submit those prints to the FBI to verify identity and criminal records.
Vos and Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) forwarded a provision that would provide individual and business tax credits for property assessed as manufacturing or agricultural. They said this will encourage people to “come to Wisconsin and make things.” The credit would be phased in over the next five years, with the state seeing reduced tax collections of $360 million.
The committee also approved Walker’s proposal to cut the Earned Income Credit from 14 percent to 11 percent for families with two children and from 43 percent to 34 percent for families with three or more children. The Wisconsin Council of Children and Families provided an example that a married couple with two children earning $32,500 annually would see a reduction of $162 in their EIC.
Grigsby referred to this move as “Robin Hood in reverse,” while committee co-chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said this will allow more funds to go towards corporate tax credits.
Darling added that corporate tax credit “is a major economic engine for the state and very much in keeping with our agenda” to create jobs.
Walker proposed eliminating all state funding grants for recycling, while keeping the mandate in place requiring all municipalities to continue the program. Objections to that idea came for community leaders on both sides of the aisle. Vos said that was a mistake and in response, the JFC restored $19 million to the recycling program.
A proposal not originating from the Governor’s office made it through the JFC to alter child labor laws. Currently, minors who work as domestics, farm laborers or election inspectors may not work more than 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week or during the time they are to be in school. The new provision would remove the occupation provisions and simply restrict minors from working during school hours, eliminating the cap on the total hours of work.
Grothman and Rep. Dan LeMahieu (R-Cascade) received approval on a party line vote to prohibit the use of public funds to pay for abortions at UW Hospitals and Clinics. There are exceptions for medically necessary abortions to save the life of the mother, prevent long-term physical damage or victims of incest or rape. All four Democratic members of the JFC voted against the measure, saying the hospital has never done abortions and that it was a waste of time.
Darling inserted a provision to provide $6 million to the National Soldiers Home located in Milwaukee as part of the state’s building program. The building was constructed during the Civil War to care for wounded veterans.
The GOP-led committee approved a motion declaring Feb. 6 as Ronald W. Reagan Day to honor the late president as “a promoter of freedom and democracy throughout the world.”
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