May 29, 2015

Finance committee completes work on Wisconsin DNR

JFC co-chairs brief media

JFC co-chairs brief media

State budget writers have cut scientists at the DNR, while scaling back Governor Scott Walker’s proposed changes to a popular conservation program. Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee moved on Friday to cut 18 of 58 positions in the DNR’s Bureau of Science Services – over the objections of Democrats.

“When you take science out of the DNR, it’s kind of like taking physicians out of hospitals,” said Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison). Half of the eliminated positions are not paid for with state revenues – so Democrats questioned any savings to taxpayers, and suggested that there were other motivating factors at work. In all, the governor’s budget deletes 80 DNR positions.

“It’s not their political bias getting in the way, it’s the actual facts getting in the way,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “If we keep going on done this road, people are going to be laughing at us. We might as well just be flat-earthers and get it over with.

“We’re not gutting the department in any way, shape or form,” said Representative Mary Czaja (R-Irma). “We’re bringing it into a size that is sustainable economically.”

The panel’s GOP majority also tweaked Governor Scott Walker’s plans to stop new land purchases by the state, instead moving to cap spending by, and reduce bonding limits for, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. “We’ve authorized bonding of $1.365 billion for stewardship, and our debt payment on it is $1.7 million a week,” said Czaja. “To put that in perspective, 10 weeks of stewardship debt pays for SeniorCare.”

The budget panel moved on to the UW System budget following more than three hours of debate on the DNR provisions. Still to be settled before the JFC completes its work next week are a funding package for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, and a plan to fund state transportation projects.

“There is no agreement on transportation, so I don’t believe we’ll be coming back until we have an agreement,” said committee co-chair, Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette). “Stay tuned,” said co-chair Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills).

Wisconsin budget committee faces contentious debate

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Joint Finance Committee (File photo: WRN)

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee could face some lengthy and heated discussions today, as the panel is poised to wrap up its work on Wisconsin’s biennial budget plan.

Friday’s agenda includes such hotly disputed topics as transportation funding, the University of Wisconsin System, and a proposal to cut several Department of Natural Resources scientists. A developing plan to have the state help finance a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks is also listed as being up for discussion.

Republicans have already indicated they plan to undo at least part of Governor Scott Walker’s plans for the UW System. Walker had proposed $300 million in cuts for UW campuses, while also giving the System more autonomy over some financial decisions to help them absorb the losses. JFC leadership indicated earlier this spring they would be removing the autonomy provision, but left the future of the proposed cuts undetermined.

Leaders of the Finance Committee have also indicated they are unsure about $1.3 billion in bonding proposed by the governor to help fund transportation projects. Walker on Thursday maintained that the overall level of bonding he’s proposing is the lowest in a decade, and restated his opposition to raising gas taxes or vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation. Walker said during a stop in Portage “I’ve made it clear, I don’t support a gas tax increase or vehicle registration fee increase. The only way I would support that I the future is if it was offset by an equal or greater amount of tax relief.”

Walker’s proposal to reduce staffing at the DNR by 80 positions, 30 of which are permanent spot in the science and education sectors, is also expected to raise debate from minority Democrats. They gained new ammunition on the issue this week, with a report from the on-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing it could also results in additional job losses in the agency because of a requirement that limited term, probationary, and project employees with the same job titles would have to be laid off first. The finance panel will also act on Walker’s request to stop buying land through the DNR’s Stewardship Program until at least 2028.

Talks also continue over a plan to have the state partially fund the construction of a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. Details of a possible deal have not been made public yet, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said unnamed sources have indicated the plan would have the state financing at least half of the $500 million project.

Exactly how Republicans plan to handle today’s agenda remains largely unclear. The budget committee frequently does not release the more controversial motions it plans to take up until just hours before the panel votes on those items. It’s also possible it could delay action on some items until next week.

Walker’s proposed layoffs at DNR could cost more jobs

Governor Walker’s plan to cut positions from the Department of Natural Resources science and education sections could lead to more cuts than intended.

Walker’s proposed budget calls for cutting a total of 30 permanent positions in the science and education sections in the DNR as part of a plan to cut a total of 80 employees in the agency.

A memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau says that under current state law if the state wants to lay off permanent employees who share the same job title, all limited term, probationary, and project employees with the same classification would need to be laid off first.  There are currently 49 of those jobs in the DNR’s research section, and another 41 in the DNR’s educational section.

The Joint Finance Committee is set to discuss that measure at their budget hearing today.


DPW’s Tate: don’t underestimate Scott Walker

photo (62)

Tate at Wispolitics luncheon

Don’t underestimate Scott Walker as a potential presidential candidate. That was the message Thursday from the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Mike Tate’s tenure at the helm of the DPW will end at the state party convention in Milwaukee June 5-6, when delegates will elect a successor. Tate was the guest at a WisPolitics luncheon during the noon hour in Madison.

Tate was asked about Governor Scott Walker, the as yet undeclared candidate for president.

“I think that anybody who underestimates Scott Walker is falling into the trap which has led to Scott Walker’s success over the past 15 or 20 years, which is that he does well when people underestimate him,” Tate said.

But Tate, who said he’s gotten to know Republicans including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, said Walker isn’t like those veteran politicians, who he said have a “moral compass,” and believe they’re doing the right thing for Wisconsin.

“And this may be harsh, I genuinely do not believe that Scott Walker has that moral compass . . . like a Paul Ryan or like a Robin Vos. And It think it allows him to be extremely malleable,” Tate said.
“In a business where ambition and ego do fuel people, it’s a question of do you use that ambition and ego for good or for ill, and I think Scott Walker uses it purely for his own advantage,” he said. “I don’t think he wakes up every morning wondering ‘how can I make like better for Wisconsinites?’ I think he wakes up every day wondering ‘how can I be President of the United States?’ And I think he’s been doing that for the past 20 years.”

Still, Tate said Walker could be an effective candidate, at least in the early going against other GOP presidential hopefuls. “I think the guy could go down to South Carolina and be able to talk the talk of, as Mitt Romney would say, the severely conservative governor, but also be able to present the veneer and facade of authenticity that has served him well in Wisconsin.”

Governor Walker prefers fully repealing state’s prevailing wage law

The Assembly Labor Committee voted on Wednesday to repeal Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law. Governor Scott Walker, who had previously said prevailing wage was not a priority, now says he’s OK with fully repealing the law or just making a few tweaks. “We’re willing to work with lawmakers whether it’s an outright repeal or some degree of meaningful reform. One way or the another,” Walker said, “I would expect the final version of the budget would have something in. The question is how far it would go.”

Walker reiterated he’d sign a measure whether it was included in the two-year state budget or as separate legislation, though he said full repeal “would be the preferable route.” On Thursday he said, “I think it makes sense for the arguments that have been made. I think the bottom line, though, is we’re trying to work with the legislature on this and a series of other things.”

AUDIO(:24) Walker said he would “indeed sign a full repeal.”

Republicans say a full repeal would save millions of taxpayer dollars. Democrats say there’s no evidence of that, and they argue getting rid of the law would certainly lower workers wages.

Prevailing wage requires construction workers involved in certain government projects be paid a minimum wage equal to wages paid on similar projects.

GOP leaders have said they don’t have the votes to support a full repeal, but hope to reform the current law.

Members of the legislative budget-writing committee are scheduled to meet on Friday. The Joint Finance Committee co-chairs have said they hope to have work on the some $70 billion budget completed before they adjourn for the weekend.

AUDIO: Jackie Johnson report (:52)