Two of Gov. Tony Evers cabinet secretaries visited Eau Claire on Friday morning to talk with local business and community leaders about the state budget approved earlier this month.
Administration Secretary Joel Brennan and Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson each noted that there were critics who said Democrat Evers should’ve vetoed the entire budget from the Republican-controlled state Legislature instead of using his line-item veto power to make changes before approving it on July 3.
“There were people who suggested the governor should do that,” Brennan said. “In some ways, that would be politics as usual.”
Thompson also disagreed with the critics.
“There have been a couple people who said the governor should’ve vetoed that budget,” he said. “Those people are wrong from my vantage point.”
At Friday morning’s gathering sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, the two secretaries explained to a crowd of about 70 local leaders how budgets favored by Republicans and Evers differed, but said the final version still “moves the needle” when it comes to things the governor is trying to achieve.
“The priorities we put forward in our state budget stayed largely intact,” Thompson said.
Spending increases for public education, the UW System, rural broadband, addiction treatment, hiring prosecutors and fixing highways were among the victories the two cited.
“One of the big areas I think we made progress on is in the capital budget,” Brennan said.
Evers proposed $2.5 billion in state building projects, which the Legislature curtailed to $1.9 billion, but Brennan said is still a significant increase over prior budgets.
The secretary received applause from the audience of local business and community leaders when he mentioned that $109 million of that will go toward a new science and health science building to replace Phillips Hall on the UW-Eau Claire campus. The budget also included another $1 million to plan the building’s second phase, which is expected to cost about $147 million to build — an item the university wants to see in the 2021-23 state budget.
There were other areas though that Brennan and Thompson viewed as shortcomings in the recently approved budget.
Top among those was the Legislature denying Evers’ desire to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, which Brennan noted has been done by 37 other states, including some that are strongly Republican.
A proposed increase to the state gas tax to pay for building roads also got shot down by the Legislature, which opted to increase vehicle-related fees instead.
Evers had proposed raising the 32.9 cents per gallon in state gas taxes to 40.9 cents. He also wanted to resume re-indexing the gas tax — making it rise generally along with inflation — by undoing the freeze that was put on it 2006 by former Gov. Jim Doyle.
But the legislature instead chose to hike fees for new car titles and annual vehicle registration renewals.
The governor’s proposal would’ve brought in $608 million in ongoing revenue, Thompson said, compared to the $390 million from the approved budget.
Looking past the budget, Brennan spoke about issues the Evers administration is taking a special interest in.
In the next couple years, the governor seeks to advance the effort to get nonpartisan redistricting in Wisconsin.
“There are very few districts throughout the state that are competitive due to gerrymandering,” Brennan said.
Reducing Wisconsin’s prison population is another priority for the governor’s administration.
Wisconsin has 24,000 people incarcerated in its prisons compared to 9,500 in Minnesota, Brennan said. He also noted that our state’s Department of Corrections has a roster of 11,000 employees.
“We have more people working for the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin than they have incarcerated in Minnesota,” Brennan said.
Reforms that allow the state to trim its corrections spending, Brennan said, will allow Wisconsin to spend that money in areas that are better investments.