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Repeated calls for education, shared revenue in first state budget listening session

The State Capitol building in Madison.
Chuck Quirmbach
The State Capitol building in Madison.

The Republican-controlled Joint Committee on Finance held a listening session in Waukesha on Wednesday, the first of four stops in the committee’s so-called “roadshow” to hear what Wisconsinites want from the next two-year state budget. The legislators are collecting information as they put their twist on Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ budget proposal.

Speaking before the session began, Republican Rep. Mark Born didn’t provide specifics on any particular budget items.

“We really haven’t started the active discussions and negotiations on specific amounts on things in the budget. That really comes after the activity of this month of gathering that information,” Born said. “We’re certainly looking forward to that, but we don’t want to bypass these opportunities to hear from the people of Wisconsin.”

In an eight-hour hearing, scores of Wisconsin residents shared their input. After moving testimonies — which were limited to two minutes per person — members of the crowd often showed their support with jazz hands, per the instructions of the committee to keep the session chugging along.

Education and healthcare were on many people’s minds. Elected officials from across southeastern Wisconsin, including Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, pleaded for shared revenue solutions, as financial crisis looms.

Dozens of educators spoke in support of raising per pupil spending, upping reimbursements for special education, and investing in students’ mental health programs. They said they have been using federal pandemic relief funds to compensate for the lack of funding, and fear looming cuts — to staff, athletics, and electives — once the one-time dollars dry up.

“Over 60% of Wisconsin school districts now have some sort of operating referendum. This is not sustainable,” said Mike Spragg, president of the Franklin Board of Education. “The decision to not properly fund schools will ultimately impact the educational quality of our state’s children.”

“We do not have the funding to sustain the programming that is providing for the post-pandemic academic recovery for our students,” said Jonathan Mitchell, director of business services at Greendale Schools, in a similar testimony. “The children in Wisconsin are relying on you.”

Gov. Evers would spend $118 million to reimburse schools for mental health services and $40 million for mental health professionals in schools. He also proposed an extra $1,000 per student in general expenses over the next two years, and bumping the special education reimbursement rate from 30% to 60%.

An army of parents and advocates in bright green t-shirts were led by City Forward Collective, a Milwaukee education nonprofit. They pushed for increases in per-pupil spending at charter and private voucher schools to meet public school spending.

LaToya Woods, a mother to three school-aged children in Milwaukee, was one of those parents. She shared her own education experience in a charter school busing program, a lonely one as the only Black student in her class.

“While the education was magnificent, the social and emotional aspects were not,” Woods said. “When I became a mother, I knew I wanted something different for my children."

Woods spoke of her son, Ryan, a second-grader at Rocketship Transformation Prep. Ryan now thrives at a school where he has the support of Black teachers, reading well above his grade level, she said.

“I ask that you support closing the funding gap across all sectors of education in the state of Wisconsin, so that our schools can continue to close the achievement gap that has plagued our city,” she said.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson made a repeated case for increased shared revenue, saying the budget offers an opportunity to stabilize the future of municipalities across the state.

“My top priorities as Mayor of the city of Milwaukee are to increase public safety as well as address the city’s financial situation,” he said. “By supporting an increase in shared revenue within the state budget, you can enable all communities around the entire state of Wisconsin to invest in their core services.”

Joe Pulvermacher, fire chief for the city of Fitchburg, echoed calls for shared revenue solutions, saying his department faces cuts to critical services and staffing as a result of the lack of revenue.

“Those reductions have impacted readiness and response,” Pulvermacher said. “If you live in the rural areas, sometimes you’re lucky to have a response.”

Others who spoke at the hearing called for expanding Badgercare, Wisconsin’s Medicaid program. Wisconsin is one of 11 states that have not accepted the federal Medicaid expansion. Democrats’ attempts to expand eligibility for the program have failed.

In a testimony, William Green shared that he worked as an attorney before suffering severe depression in 2019 that led to psychosis. He said that he could not afford Badgercare, and the health insurance he did have didn’t offer mental health coverage.

“The mistake we make is we call mental health somehow different than other health,” Green said. “The symptoms are physical, the pain is real, the anguish is real.”

Green said he could only access Badgercare after his condition worsened.

“I had to reach a point where I couldn’t work anymore, nevermind in the law, but in any other field, and essentially become homeless in order to get Badgercare to cover me,” he said.

Expanding the program would save lives, Green believes. “Badgercare didn’t cover everything I needed,” he said. “But without Badgercare, I might not be here today.”

In the coming weeks, the committee will hold listening sessions in Eau Claire, Wisconsin Dells, and Minocqua. In a statement, the committee’s four Democratic members noted that “once again, the Republican co-chairs have decided to avoid the most populous communities in the state.”

The Legislature will continue to work on the budget for the next few months. Then, it will head to Gov. Evers for adoption or vetoes. The new budget takes effect in July.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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