What a difference two years makes. In his first budget as governor, Scott Walker, R-Wisconsin, was trying to balance what his administration estimated to be a $3.6 billion deficit. Now, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state has a $484 million surplus.
"What this does is it doesn't change our philosophy," Walker said in an interview with FOX 11 On Special Assignment. "It just makes it easier to fund those priorities."
Walker says the turnaround is a direct result of Act 10, the sweeping changes to collective bargaining that were part of the budget and budget repair bill two years ago. Those same changes sparked massive protests, led to recall elections and created political theater the likes of which Wisconsin has never seen.
"You can make the argument that it worked but at what expense?" said State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. He was one of 14 Democrats who left the state for three weeks to try to avoid a vote on the collective bargaining changes. This time around, Hansen is not expecting as much controversy.
"I don't think he wants to have a mass rebellion again," Hansen said.
Tom Sladek from the Brown County Taxpayers Association doesn't have high expectations either.
"I think this budget will seem probably sort of bland compared to the last one," said Sladek.
But we do know one controversial item that will be in Walker's budget: An expansion of the school choice program. When FOX 11 on Special asked Walker a few weeks ago, he wasn't ready to announce his plans.
"Will this budget include an expansion of school choice?" Walker was asked.
"We're looking at that," he replied.
On Monday, just two days before his budget address, Walker confirmed that his budget will include $73 million over two years to expand the school voucher program. Under the plan, nine districts, including Green Bay and Fond du Lac, would immediately qualify for school vouchers.
"If we've got schools that are failing, our first goal is going to be to give them tools to turn those schools around. But if they fail, if they continue to have a failing school, then we should find ways to help those parents avoid that," Walker said. "Our goal should be in any of these options to make sure every kid and every family has the opportunity to get a great education."
Hansen strongly opposes the expansion of school vouchers.
"This, to me, is an abandonment of public education to take money away from public schools and give it to private," Hansen said. "It's not the right way to go."
Walker is also planning to add money to public education. Total funding for K-12 schools would go up $276 million. That's about a one percent increase but doesn't come close to making up for two years ago, when education funding was cut by eight percent.
"He's never going to put back in what he took out," Hansen said. "There's no way. So if he adds a few $100, I'm sure public schools will be excited about that but it's nowhere going to gain or get back to where we've been."
Much of the increase funding in Walker's budget will be tied to performance.
"I think people uniformly understand and agree that education is a top priority and that we have to spend a lot of money on it," Sladek said. "But I think there's just about as strong uniform belief that that system needs some reform so that we get more bang for our buck."
Under Walker's budget, the UW System will see its funding go up $181 million. Technical colleges will see a $5 million increase. Walker wants to spend $100 million on workforce development initiatives; $6.4 billion on transportation projects and $25 million to help business start-ups.
The governor is also planning to cut income taxes, especially for the middle class. We haven't seen details yet but Walker says the cuts would add up to about $200 per family. He says the tax cuts will stimulate the economy and help create jobs.
"The best incentive out there is putting more money in the hands of small business owners and other who can invest that into capital and putting people to work," Walker said.
But Hansen is skeptical.
"The majority of these tax breaks are going to go to people making over $200,000," Hansen said. "I have to see the devil in the details in that because I don't believe that's a benefit."
Just because something is in the governor's budget does not mean it will happen. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans but don't expect it to be a rubber stamp for the governor. Some Republicans have already expressed concerns about the expansion of school vouchers.
After Walker releases the budget on Wednesday night, it will head to the Joint Finance Committee. Then, it will go to the Senate and Assembly.
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