Republicans block funds for Wisconsin broadband and make controversial cuts in building projects
GOP lawmakers have refused to put more dollars in the state budget to expand broadband internet service in Wisconsin. Republicans controlling the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee have also reduced the amount of cash that will go into building projects around the state, compared to what Gov. Tony Evers (D) proposed.
It all took place Thursday at the State Capitol.
Evers wanted to put $750 million in state funds into expanding higher-speed broadband to large areas of Wisconsin that don't have access to it, or have poor service. Weeks ago, the Joint Finance Committee stripped that amount from the state budget proposal. And Thursday, during a news conference, Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) announced the GOP won't put in any new state money for broadband.
"The reason for that is currently, a lot of projects in the pipeline. Our providers are busy out there. Additionally, we're going to be receiving a lot of federal money (for broadband expansion,) so we're concerned about the industry's capacity to invest additional state tax dollars wisely," Marklein said.
During committee debate Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) said not every part of the state is backed up on being able to expand broadband. Goyke said delaying state spending on faster internet hurts the ability for communities to grow and thrive.
"That includes the inner city neighborhoods, where I live in, the central city of Milwaukee. It includes the most rural, smallest townships. Similar access challenges. Similar unserved or underserved populations. Same growth patterns. Having access, having reliable download and upload speeds is a necessity," Goyke said.
But Republicans voted down Goyke's proposal for broadband spending and backed their zero-dollar plan by party line votes of 12-4.
Controversial moves by the committee were just getting started.
Eventually, Republicans unveiled their spending proposal for building projects around the state. GOP lawmakers plan to spend about $800 million less of the $7 billion state budget surplus than Evers wanted to allocate. The other Joint Finance co-chair, Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), insisted on putting $1.2 billion in cash, and borrowing about that much, for a $2.4 billion commitment to the capital budget.
"This is a historic investment. I've worked on five of them. This is by far the biggest. Part of that no doubt is because of the opportunity that the surplus, the one-time surplus, gives the state to make these investments and not have to do it with debt service," Born said.
Born says a lot of good building projects will be funded, and Republicans also put aside some money to pay down past borrowing debt.
But Democrats pointed to several projects the GOP has taken out of the state budget, most notably about $200 million to partly fund a new engineering building at the UW-Madison. The UW-System is already raising $150 million in donations for that project. State Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said the prospect of no new engineering building troubles corporate executives.
"I have been fielding phone calls for the last days from panicked CEOs in and out of my district that were terrified you were not going to put the engineering building in the budget. That you were going to take it out, they said, 'What is going on? Don't they understand how important this is for our company? Don't they understand how important this is for our economy? We're here because we need engineers coming out of the UW-Madison, and we don't have enough,'" Roys told the Republicans.
Roys contends the engineering building cut and the rejecting of most other UW-Madison capital projects is Assembly Speaker Robin Vos' way of showing his displeasure with the liberal campus.
Joint Finance leaders didn't mention the Racine County Republican, but said tough choices had to be made to shrink the Governor's capital budget proposal.
Some proposed Milwaukee building projects also lost out. But one winner was money to help expand the Marquette University Dental School. Marquette expressed gratitude to the Joint Finance Committee, which says it will resume its state budget deliberations next Thursday.
Joint Finance Committee audio provided by Wisconsin Eye.