Wisconsin Republicans push tighter budget, downplay surplus

March 1, 2023 GMT
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FILE - Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly Robin Vos speaks during a press conference after Gov. Tony Evers delivered his state budget address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 15, 2023. Top Wisconsin Republicans are downplaying the state's record budget surplus, even as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promises massive spending increases. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu expect to enact tax cuts and limit spending on new programs with an estimated $7 billion surplus, they said at a Wisconsin Counties Association event on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Samantha Madar/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)
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FILE - Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly Robin Vos speaks during a press conference after Gov. Tony Evers delivered his state budget address at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 15, 2023. Top Wisconsin Republicans are downplaying the state's record budget surplus, even as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promises massive spending increases. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu expect to enact tax cuts and limit spending on new programs with an estimated $7 billion surplus, they said at a Wisconsin Counties Association event on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Samantha Madar/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republican legislative leaders downplayed the state’s record budget surplus Wednesday, even as Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has pushed for massive spending increases on K-12 education, tax cuts and funding for local governments.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos cautioned that much of the state’s projected $7 billion surplus is one-time money that he said shouldn’t be used to fund new programs or ongoing expenses. Evers has proposed a range of uses for the money, from subsidizing repairs at the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium to creating a three-month paid leave program for most workers.

“We do not have anywhere near the money that Gov. Evers spoke about yesterday,” Vos said at a Wisconsin Counties Association event as he tried to temper expectations for what local governments would receive in the budget.

At the same event on Tuesday, Evers promised tax cuts for the middle class and additional funding for local governments — plans that Vos said relied on “phony math.”

“I don’t know what he means by that, to be honest with you. We have a $7 billion surplus. We have lots of needs in the state,” Evers said during a speech in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Vos said Republicans would tie more funding for local governments to requirements on how it could be spent.

He and Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who together lead the GOP-controlled Legislature, advocated for using the surplus to enact tax cuts for payers at all income levels. Co-chairs of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee said Tuesday that LeMahieu’s plan for a flat income tax rate was unlikely to be included in the budget, but Republicans view such a tax as a long-term goal.

Vos cited estimates that the state’s recurring revenue will increase by $1.2 billion over the next two years. He told county officials that about 75% of that money would be needed to continue funding Medicaid programs and wage increases for prison guards that Evers supported with federal pandemic aid.

“They have decided to rob our kids and grandkids and give us one-time money to invest,” Vos said.

Democrats pushed for bipartisan cooperation on spending surplus funds, even if they go toward one-time investments.

“We do have a really unique opportunity now — however it is you do your math — to invest in our communities,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard said at the counties event Wednesday.

Democrats and Republicans showed signs of finding common ground on creating more affordable housing and building out electric vehicle charging stations.

Leaders from both parties agreed that housing in Wisconsin is too expensive for workers and families. Whether they can agree on how to address the problem remains to be seen.

LeMahieu said he expects Republicans to have conversations about the best way to spread electric vehicle charging stations across Wisconsin under the budget. Evers proposed allocating $34.5 million in federal funds for charging stations in his budget plan. Vos was clear that he would not support using any state money for electric vehicle infrastructure.

“We are transitioning as the federal government forces us — it’s not by choice — it forces us to buy electric vehicles,” Vos said. He proposed higher registration fees for electric vehicle owners and taxes on charging stations to cover construction and maintenance costs that could fall to the state.

Vos also bemoaned the Legislature not enacting toll roads in 2013 when it was discussed, saying long-term funding solutions are needed for transportation costs with revenue from the gas tax declining. Vos told reporters that he wanted to revisit the possibility of toll roads, but he doesn’t think Evers or Republican senators are on board.

“So I certainly am going to keep trying to talk about it because we have to pay for our roads,” Vos said. “It can’t just be more money from the federal government when we know that that spigot eventually is going to end.”

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this story.

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Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.