July 30, 2014

JFC wraps up agency budget briefings

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday wrapped up budget briefings from key state agencies, ending the first round of hearings on Governor Walker’s proposed $68 billion state budget plan. Lawmakers heard testimony from the heads of the Department of Children and Families, Natural Resources, and Safety and Professional Services.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned DCF Secretary Eloise Anderson about several proposals within the agency’s budget. Republicans co-chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) praised the agency for uncovering possible fraud at a Middleton-based foster care provider. The agency said in January it intends to revoke the company’s license because of questionable costs billed to the state. Anderson said the discovery is part of continued efforts to uncover fraud in state programs.

Democrats on the panel were quick to criticize a budget provision that increases funding for high ranking providers in the state’s YoungStar rating system. Under the proposal, providers with a four and five start ranking would see an increase in state payments, although State Senator Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) and Representative Cory Mason (D-Racine) questioned why more is not being done to help lower ranking providers move up in the system. Anderson defended the proposal, saying she believes that state is doing enough through training programs to give those providers the tools they need to improve.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp also faced a wide range of questions on that agency’s budget, with Republicans raising concerns about increases in air permitting fees and bonding for the state’s stewardship fund. Co-Chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) also criticized a proposal to cut wolf hunting permit fees by more than half, just a year after the hunt was legalized. Stepp said the move is intended to bring the hunt in line with the fees charged for other large game hunts, such as those for elk and bears.

State Senator Bob Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) questioned the DNR’s current commitment to enforcing environmental standards, pointing to the agency’s response to a broken oil pipeline and what he described as a “slap on the wrist” for an Oconomowoc septic firm that spread human waste on fields. The company was fined $4,000 and was threatened with having its license revoked if future violations are found, which Stepp defended as an appropriate response.

With budget briefings done, the committee will now hold a series of four public hearings across the state in April. The first of those will be April 4th in suburban Milwaukee.