Tuesday was the start of the Legislature’s review of Governor Evers’ proposed state budget.
Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Howard Marklein says that Wisconsin will be receiving a massive influx of aid from the federal government, and that Republicans are keeping an eye on things.
“The total amount that a federal money that’s come into the state is huge and, in terms of us doing the budget for the next two years, that is something that we’re going to have to consider.”
Marklein says he’s unhappy with the size of Evers’ budget, and that it will dip into the state’s rainy day general fund balance.
“That’s unacceptable to me. We cannot reverse the strong trajectory that we had in the past.”
Two days of hearings brought four different agencies to the floor for questions and presentations to the committee.
Republicans grilled State superintendent of schools Caroline Stanford Taylor over whether or not schools would be open this fall, and Stanford Taylor says that’s up to the local school districts. She also said this was not a lost year.
“But the one thing that I want to make clear to everyone is that there was a continuation of learning, no matter how. Whether it was virtual hybrid or in-person, the learning never stopped.”
Stanford Taylor says that they do hope that students are back in school this fall, but says that the pandemic has to be under control before many districts will feel safe to make that switch. “In person is the best avenue for our students because there are some things that you just can’t replicate in terms of relationships and those things, but number one is to make sure that kids are safe.”
The state will be receiving over 2 billion dollars in federal aid for schools in the upcoming budget cycle, and much of that will go to large districts serving underprivileged kids.
The Department of Workforce Development got the second hearing on Tuesday, and Republicans grilled Secretary Amy Pechacek over the failures of the Unemployment System during the height of the pandemic last year. Pechacek says they’re looking to expand their programming on job training and education to ensure that people will be able to find jobs in a post-pandemic world.
“In order to keep growing our economy and really invest long term, we want to make sure we’ve got programs in place that are going to help these jobseekers transition so that our employers can also continue to grow.”
Chairman Howard Marklein says business people are competing with unemployment to find workers, and Secretary Pechacek says that’s unlikely.
“So to think that folks could sustain on $370 [a week], without Healthcare, without benefits… I don’t really think that that’s reality.”
The next hearing came on Wednesday with Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole.
Cole says the agency is planning to expand funding to remediate and remove an emerging contaminant from Wisconsin’s ecosystem. “These forever chemicals are a public health concern, that build up and move through our soil, seep into our groundwater and carry through the air. PFOS are known to build in our bodies and our fish tissue, and wildlife tissue.”
Republicans, alongside the state’s business lobby, say that the DNR doesn’t have a mandate to regulate PFOS under state law. The DNR is currently in the process of codifying those rules.
Cole says the state is working to keep up with fish stocking demands, while also keeping Wisconsin’s waters clean. “It ain’t about the numbers it’s about the habitat they go into. So for us, to make sure that what we put in can survive, the healthier the habitat, the better off we are.”
That question came in response to Republican concerns that more people have been getting fishing licenses during the pandemic as a means to do something safe outdoors.
The state’s effort to increase broadband connections to rural Wisconsin got a focus on Wednesday at Joint Finance’s budget hearings. Public Service Commission Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq says the Commission doesn’t have the power to regulate how and where broadband lines are installed.
“They’ve been deregulated now for more than 10 years so we don’t have the ability to say if you’re going down County Highway O you must provide service on both sides of the highway.”
Valcq says one fix to the issue would be to allow for municipalities to apply for those broadband grants themselves, provided they can prove that no other provider is willing to install lines in their area. “It’s not a matter of pushing Private Industry out. It’s a matter of recognizing that there are areas of the state where Private Industry is refusing to go.”
The Budget hearings are now set to go on the road, with several in person hearings and one virtual hearing before the whole budget comes to the legislature for debates and votes.