State Budget: A Step in Right Direction
A few weeks ago, the Joint Finance Committee wrapped up their work on the state budget after making substantial changes to Governor Walker’s original budget proposal. The budget was then sent to both houses of the Legislature. After the Assembly passed the budget, it was sent to the Senate, and after 12 hours of debate, the 2013-15 State Biennial Budget is now being reviewed by Governor Walker.
In the past few months, I have held town hall meetings and received many calls, letters and emails regarding the state budget. I appreciated hearing your feedback and concerns throughout this process. While no state budget is ever perfect, I believe that this budget is one the most favorable for the people of northern Wisconsin in a long time.
When I ran for the State Senate last year, people repeatedly told me that Wisconsin was heading in the right direction, but taxes continued to be too high. As a result of this budget, Wisconsin’s working families will see one of the largest income tax cuts in over a decade. Not only did this budget cut taxes by $650 million, it streamlined Wisconsin’s tax code by eliminating over a dozen tax credits and it closes numerous loopholes. It also keeps in place revenue caps on property taxes and with changes to Wisconsin’s tax code, it will eventually move Wisconsin out of the ten highest taxed states in the nation.
As a parent with three children attending public schools, one thing I want, like any other parent, is a quality education for my children. Wisconsin’s rural, northern school districts do their best to serve the surrounding communities, but they are faced with challenges such as high transportation costs or a limited property tax base because of public land ownership. The 2013-15 biennial budget will include an additional $150 in per pupil funding for K-12 school districts, boost high-cost transportation aids to rural school districts and send more money to our local schools via National Forest Income payments.
There was a great deal of debate in the past few months within the Legislature on the issue of accepting federal dollars to expand Wisconsin’s Medicaid programs. Given the fact that our national debt is currently over $16 trillion and counting, there is a real concern that the federal government will eventually shift their funding obligation to state taxpayers.
Under Governor Walker’s Medicaid proposal, an additional 80,000 Wisconsinites living at or below 100% of federal poverty level (FPL) will now be eligible for Medicaid coverage. Those over 100% will now be eligible for subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act on the federal exchanges. This budget invests an additional $750 million in Medicaid and medical assistance related programs. I believe the proposal that Governor Walker put forward is fair. Wisconsin will continue to fund BadgerCare for pregnant women and children up to 300% of the FPL. It will continue to provide a safety net to our most vulnerable citizens while protecting taxpayers should the federal government fail to fulfill their promise down the road.
Among other positives in this budget, local governments will see an increase in general transportation aids, additional funding for Wisconsin’s tourism industry was approved and UW System students will see a two-year tuition freeze. The tuition freeze is a result of substantial reserves being uncovered by my colleagues in the Assembly. There, a group of lawmakers who are Certified Public Accountants dug deep within the books of the UW System and discovered undesignated accounts totaling over $600 million. Despite having excess money on hand, the UW System raised tuition by 5.5% in each of the last six years. In an effort to keep the cost of higher education within the average family’s budget, this budget freezes tuition costs for the first time since the UW System was created in 1971.
Just a few years ago, Wisconsin was facing a $3.6 billion deficit. During the prior administration, it wasn’t simply a matter of whether your taxes were going to go up, but rather by how much. While we made tough decisions to get our state on sound financial footing, some of our neighbors like Illinois have not. In Wisconsin, we’re cutting taxes instead of raising them. Unlike previous state budgets, this one isn’t about how much more you’ll have to pay; it is about keeping more of what you have earned.