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Walker budget vetoes further limit school districts’ spending options

School district officials say Wisconsin’s budget will severely limit their ability to raise money for construction and renovation projects and other priorities.

Gov. Scott Walker put his signature to the state’s 2017-19 budget on Thursday afternoon. Although the spending plan was largely unchanged from the one the Legislature had sent his office earlier in the month, Walker did use his broad veto powers to strike out 99 separate provisions.

One of his vetoes sets stricter limits than lawmakers had first proposed on when school districts can hold referendums to spend extra money on construction projects and other plans. The original version of the budget would have allowed these sorts of referendums to take place only on regularly scheduled election days or during November in odd-numbered years. Walker’s veto eliminated the possibility of those November referendums in non-election years.

Another veto eliminates the ability of districts to exceed their state-imposed revenue caps to finance energy-efficiency projects without first getting voters’ approval through a referendum. Before this year’s budget, they were able to exceed these limits simply by having a resolution passed by the local school board.

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said those two changes to the budget “are probably going to have the broadest impact on school districts.”

In explaining the veto on energy-efficiency projects, Walker said school officials should have to get the explicit permission of voters any time they want to spend more money than allowed by state-mandated revenue limits.

“Taxpayers should have a direct voice when large property tax increases are under consideration,” he wrote in his list of vetoes.

At the same time, school-district referendums should be voted on by the greatest number of residents possible, Walker argued. This was his reason for allowing referendums to be considered only during regularly scheduled elections, when voters are already turning out to elect candidates for local, state and national office.

Rossmiller questioned Walker’s reasoning for both vetoes. He also noted that when school districts’ revenue limits have increased in recent years, it has been at a rate below the rate of inflation.

“We think that the revenue limits are too tight,” he said.

Rossmiller also said out in odd-numbered years, when there are no regular elections in the fall, school districts will either have to raise additional money in the spring or go without.

“So that sets up a situation where, if you don’t go to a referendum in February or April, you’ll almost have to wait a full year,” he said.

Rossmiller predicted that some school districts, especially those in rural areas, won’t be able to carry on.

“This restriction, by forcing them to skip a year in their ability to adjust their property tax levy, is potentially going to cause some of them to dissolve,” he said.

A spokesman for Walker could immediately be reached for comment.

The announced vetoes were met with praise by some lawmakers.

Three Republican senators — Chris Kapenga, Delafield, Steve Nass, Whitewater, and Duey Stroebel, of Saukville — had decided to throw their support behind the budget only after Walker had agreed to use his veto powers to make these changes. Other vetoes sought by the senators will make the repeal of the state’s remaining prevailing-wage laws take effect immediately, rather than postponing that change until next year.

About Alex Zank, [email protected]

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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