GOP lawmakers may increase school funding, scale back voucher program

May 31, 2013 by

Madison — Republicans who control the Legislature are working with — and against — one another on a behind-the-scenes deal that would increase funding for public schools and scale back the school voucher expansion sought by GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Talks were fluid Thursday, with lawmakers arguing over what was and wasn’t final and even shifting their own positions over the course of the hectic day.

Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget committee, initially said Thursday she supported the framework of the schools deal and believed it could pass the Senate but had to backtrack later in the day as conservative lawmakers objected to the schools agreement between Walker and moderate Republican senators.

“A compromise can be accepted but the details are very, very fluid,” Darling said.

In a sign of the conservative discontent, 11 Assembly Republicans sent a letter Thursday to their leaders saying they wouldn’t vote for the budget as written. They want the bill to cut income taxes by a greater amount, reduce bonding by $500 million and remove a provision that would require people to provide their DNA when they are arrested for felonies, rather than when they are convicted.

There are 60 Republicans in the 99-member Assembly. If all 11 withheld their votes, that would leave Republicans with at most 49 votes for the budget — short of a majority. Democrats have railed against the budget, rejecting both Walker’s voucher proposal and the GOP compromise that surfaced Thursday, and there is almost no chance that one of them would provide the needed 50th vote.

Legislative leaders have been meeting privately with each other and Walker or his aides for the past three days on how much to expand voucher programs, which allow qualifying students to attend religious schools and other private institutions at taxpayer expense. The programs are available in Milwaukee and eastern Racine County.

Voucher deal

The terms of a deal emerged Thursday morning, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said they had not signed off on it.

“We are still talking,” Vos wrote in a text message Thursday morning. “There is no final deal. It’s just negotiations like normal and lobbyists trying to influence them” by leaking details.

Under the latest proposal:

■Public schools would receive $150 more per student in general aid this fall and another $150 increase the following year. The plan would cost $289 million over two years, with perhaps $173 million funded with state taxes and the rest with local property taxes.

School districts would have the authority to spend that money. Walker wanted to give schools $129 million in state aid but require them to put all of it toward property tax relief, rather than using it for new expenses.

■A new voucher program would become available to students outside Milwaukee and Racine. It would be limited to 500 students the first year and 1,000 students every year thereafter. Walker wanted no limits on the number of students in the program after the second year.

■The new program would be available to students in any school district. Walker wanted to make it available in districts with 4,000 or more students that were identified as struggling on school report cards issued by the state.

■No more than 1% of the students of any given school district could participate in the new program.

■The new program would be available to students of families making 185% of the federal poverty level or less — well below the income thresholds for Milwaukee and Racine. Those programs are available to families making up to 300% of the federal poverty level, with a higher threshold for married couples.

■Voucher schools in all parts of the state would receive $7,000 per student — up from $6,442. The plan would keep the amount the same for all voucher students; Walker wanted to provide $7,050 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and $7,856 for students in high school because it costs more to educate them.

■Starting in the fall of 2016, per-pupil increases for public schools and voucher schools would be linked. Thus, if one received a $100-per-student increase, the other would as well.

■Private schools would have to operate for two years before they could accept voucher students. That provision is meant as a way to prevent fly-by-night operations from enrolling students at public expense.

■Walker’s plan for creating a new way to authorize charter schools would be taken up as legislation outside of the budget so it could be modified.

Walker also wanted to create a statewide program for special-needs students, but lawmakers would abandon that idea as part of the proposal.

Darling said the biggest complaints from conservative lawmakers were aimed at the 1% cap for each district.

“It’s very problematic because that really controls marketplace demand and that’s not the way the program is supposed to work,” she said.

Fitzgerald said lawmakers were trying to fit the schools plan in with other parts of the budget, such as the provisions that would cut taxes. He said they were fine-tuning the plan and had agreed a voucher expansion would be broad-based, rather than going into only specific new districts.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor is “continuing to work with legislators” on a compromise.

Voucher opponents were unimpressed with the deal. State Schools Superintendent Tony Evers issued a news release calling it a Trojan horse.

“Let’s be clear, no cap on voucher enrollment or income limits has ever stayed in place over the past 20 years,” Evers said. “History shows, and I predict, these caps are temporary. And the result will be more and more funding pulled out of public school classrooms and put into private and religious schools.”

Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) agreed, questioning whether the plan would be worse for public schools than Walker’s original proposal.

“It’s a nose under the tent for the whole state,” Richards said.

GOP dissent

Meanwhile, decisions on the budget remain in flux in other areas — as made clear by the demands of the 11 Assembly Republicans spelled out in an open letter to Vos and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford).

Those who signed the letter said they wanted the budget to include tax cuts proposed by Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and they wanted cuts to ensure the tax reductions did not hurt the state’s long-term fiscal picture. They also want to cut bonding by $500 million and remove the provisions on taking DNA from suspects at arrest.

“We agree as a group that we cannot both represent our constituents and our conservative principles by supporting the budget in its current form,” they wrote.

Signing the letter were Republican Reps. David Craig of the Town of Vernon, Stephen Nass of Whitewater, Chris Kapenga of Delafield, Tyler August of Lake Geneva, Duey Stroebel of Saukville, Gary Tauchen of Bonduel, Rob Hutton of Brookfield, Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis, Adam Neylon of the Village of Pewaukee, Paul Tittl of Manitowoc and Don Pridemore of Erin.

The fate of Kooyenga’s tax plan remains uncertain as the Joint Finance Committee heads toward its final budget votes on Tuesday.

“We’ve got some work to do,” Kooyenga acknowledged Thursday as he shuttled between meetings.

An analysis of Kooyenga’s plan released Thursday showed it would provide just over one-third of the tax savings to the top 5% of taxpayers, a group with an average income of $392,000. The analysis was conducted by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The top 20% of earners, a group with an average income of $183,000, would receive more than two-thirds of the benefit, according to the analysis.

Kooyenga has responded by pointing to other studies that show that most of the taxes in Wisconsin are paid by the upper-income earners. He has said that because of that they tend to receive more of the benefits of tax cuts.

At the same time, Kooyenga has acknowledged that part of the goal of his plan is to make the tax plan flatter, which amounts to treating wealthy and low-income taxpayers in a more similar way than under current law.

GOP lawmakers may increase school funding, scale back voucher program.

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