Republicans plan to kill some of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ biggest proposals in the first vote taken this year by the state’s budget-writing committee, including plans to set aside $40 million to replace lead pipes, repeal the state’s right-to-work laws and reinstate prevailing-wage laws.
The co-chairs of the committee, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, said in a memo on Wednesday they will fundamentally reshape the state’s $83 billion budget by using a single vote on May 9 to remove more than 70 policy proposals put forward by Evers. Republicans will then work to build the budget from the ground up, starting with spending as it is currently set under the spending plan passed under former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
Evers’ budget had proposed eliminating the state’s right-to-work law, reinstating prevailing wages and bringing back other union-friendly policies undone during Walker’s time in office. Although some labor unions were glad that Evers’ budget included these proposals, some infrastructure experts were concerned the governor’s plans could endanger another central feature of his budget: an increase in the gas tax and other fees expected to drum up $608 million in new transportation revenue.
Although Nygren and Darling’s memo doesn’t include plans to reduce Evers’ gas-tax proposal, it would undo his planned repeal of a minimum markup on gasoline. Evers had called for repealing the minimum markup to counterbalance his proposal to raise Wisconsin’s gas tax by nearly 10 cents by the end of the state’s two-year budget.
Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff had no immediate comment.
Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, a union group, said it came as little surprise that the Joint Finance Committee was trying to maintain a ban on certain types of project-labor agreements and prevailing wages and protect right to work. Those policies’ initial inclusion in the budget, however, was a signal that Evers had not forgotten the effects of the policies on organized labor in Wisconsin.
“It’s not like we didn’t expect it because, quite frankly, for the last eight years, there’s been no real debate on it,” Bukeiwicz said. “(Including the proposals was) a step in the right direction because the climate is changing.”
The trio of Walker policies were seen by many as an assault on construction unions. In 2015, the state under Walker enacted a law making Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state, which banned contract provisions requiring employees at unionized companies to make payments to a union. The GOP-controlled Legislature in 2015 also slashed prevailing-wage requirements for local projects and later, using a budget amendment, cut the same requirement for state projects.
Walker also signed a bill preventing project-labor agreements on public projects from containing provisions that critics argued steered public work to union contractors
“Reforms like the repeal of prevailing wage, right-to-work, and project labor agreements have been incredible wins for Wisconsin taxpayers,” said Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Cedarburg and a member of the state’s Joint Finance Committee, in a statement. “I look forward to voting to remove these items from the budget next week.”
The committee’s actions on prevailing wage, project-labor agreements and right to work are coming as a relief to the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, which mainly represents non-union contractors, said John Schulze, the group’s director of legal and government affairs.
Eliminating these provisions in the budget now cues up another fight: how to pay for infrastructure in Wisconsin.
“We’re pleased with what the joint finance committee leadership’s plan to repeal prevailing wage. These are all common-sense initiatives that will increase competition without affecting safety or quality,” Schulze said. “Now that these are put to bed, we can start having a serious conversation about transportation funding.”
The joint finance committee’s memo does not detail plans to reduce Gov. Evers’ gas-tax increase. But by dismissing all plans to repeal the state’s minimum markup, which prevents gas from being sold below wholesale price, GOP legislators could frustrate the governor’s efforts to find a counterbalance for a higher gas tax. Evers has said repealing minimum markup could save drivers up to 9 cents a gallon at the pump.
A group of Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, and Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, are also working on a bill that would scrap any gas-tax increase and instead direct part of the taxes now collected on sales of auto parts and vehicles to the state’s transportation fund. The bill could couple a revenue increase of some $258 million in the next biennium with mandated changes in WisDOT policies. One likely proposal would bring plans to allow design-build contractors to perform road projects.
Joint Finance also appears prepared to strip out a plan to borrow $40 million for lead-pipe replacements. Republicans have said they’re concerned most of the money would be spent to replace lead pipes in Milwaukee, leaving out smaller places. Milwaukee is in the midst of a scandal over the city’s handling of lead-abatement efforts. The city is estimated to have about 40% of the state’s lead-ridden pipes, a health hazard that could cost some $750 million to eliminate.
Darling and Nygren said in a joint statement they expected Evers would pursue many of the ideas in separate legislation. But those are nearly certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“The bottom line is his budget is unsustainable, irresponsible and jeopardizes the progress we’ve made in the last eight years,” Darling and Nygren said in a statement explaining their plans.
The decision is not a surprise. Republican leaders have been consistently opposed to nearly all of the Evers proposals the committee plans to remove next week.
Also up for removal is the central proposal in Evers’ budget: Having the state accept federal dollars allowed under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to cover an additional 82,000 poor people. That would also free up an additional $1.6 billion to spend on other health care priorities.
Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat on the budget committee, said refusing to accept the federal dollars would blow a massive hole in the budget because the spending plan was put together under the assumption that money would be received.
“It’s the centerpiece of the budget,” Taylor said.
Republicans also want to erase provisions that would make driver’s licenses available to immigrants who are here illegally, grant in-state -tuition rates to immigrants here illegally and set up automatic voter registration, in addition to a plan that would allow medical marijuana.
Other proposals destined for the chopping block include:
- Restricting a tax credit now provided to manufacturers, a change that would save the state an estimated $516.6 million but that Republicans decry as a tax increase on job creators.
- Increasing the minimum wage.
- Repealing the so-called right-to-work law that was passed under Walker.
- Ending a tax deduction for private-school tuition.
- Closing the so-called “dark stores loophole” that allows big box retailers to save millions in property taxes by assessing the value of their active stores as if they were vacant.
- Restoring powers Republicans stripped from Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul in a lame-duck session in December. The GOP prohibited Evers from withdrawing the state from lawsuits and forced Kaul to get legislative approval before settling lawsuits and required him to deposit settlement awards in the state general fund rather than in state Department of Justice accounts. The session has led to several legal challenges, two of which are before the state Supreme Court.
– The Associated Press contributed to this article.