Republican leadership pushes tighter 2023 budget, downplay Wisconsin's surplus

Trying to temper expectations for local governments, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu expect to enact tax cuts and limit spending in Wisconsin's 2023-25 budget.

Associated Press

March 1, 2023

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Robin Vos stands from the Speaker's chairs on the dais at the front of the Wisconsin Assembly chamber, with a Wisconsin flag and wood-paneled walls in the background.

Speaker Robin Vos presides over a session of the Wisconsin Assembly on Jan. 25, 2022. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu expect to enact tax cuts and limit spending on new programs with an estimated $7 billion surplus, they said at a Wisconsin Counties Association event on March 1, 2023. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders downplayed the state’s record budget surplus on March 1, even as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has pushed for massive spending increases on K-12 education, tax cuts and funding for local governments.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos cautioned that much of the state’s projected $7 billion surplus is one-time money that he said shouldn’t be used to fund new programs or ongoing expenses. Evers has proposed a range of uses for the money, from subsidizing repairs at the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium to creating a three-month paid leave program for most workers.

“We do not have anywhere near the money that Gov. Evers spoke about yesterday,” Vos said at a Wisconsin Counties Association event as he tried to temper expectations for what local governments would receive in the budget.

At the same event on Feb. 28, Evers promised tax cuts for the middle class and additional funding for local governments — plans that Vos said relied on “phony math.”

“I don’t know what he means by that, to be honest with you. We have a $7 billion surplus, we have lots of needs in the state,” Evers said during a speech in Milwaukee on March 1.

Vos said Republicans would tie more funding for local governments to requirements on how it could be spent.

He and Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who together lead the GOP-controlled Legislature, advocated for using the surplus to enact tax cuts for payers at all income levels. Co-chairs of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee said Feb. 28 that LeMahieu’s plan for a flat income tax rate was unlikely to be included in the budget, but Republicans view such a tax as a long-term goal.

Vos cited estimates that the state’s recurring revenue will increase by $1.2 billion over the next two years. He told county officials that about 75% of that money would be needed to continue funding Medicaid programs and wage increases for prison guards that Evers supported with federal pandemic aid.

“They have decided to rob our kids and grandkids and give us one-time money to invest,” Vos said.

Democrats pushed for bipartisan cooperation on spending surplus funds, even if they go toward one-time investments.

“We do have a really unique opportunity now — however it is you do your math — to invest in our communities,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said at the counties event on March 1.

Democrats and Republicans showed signs of finding common ground on creating more affordable housing and building out electric vehicle charging stations.

Leaders from both parties agreed that housing in Wisconsin is too expensive for workers and families. Whether they can agree on how to address the problem remains to be seen.

LeMahieu said he expects Republicans to have conversations about the best way to spread electric vehicle charging across Wisconsin under the budget. Evers proposed allocating $34.5 million in federal funds for charging stations in his budget plan. Vos was clear that he would not support using any state money for electric vehicle infrastructure.

“We are transitioning as the federal government forces us — it’s not by choice — it forces us to buy electric vehicles,” Vos said. He proposed higher registration fees for electric vehicle owners and taxes on charging stations to cover construction and maintenance costs that could fall to the state.

Vos also bemoaned the Legislature not enacting toll roads in 2013 when it was discussed, saying long-term funding solutions are needed for transportation costs with revenue from the gas tax declining.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Verhiuzen on Twitter.

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