Wisconsin's powerful Joint Finance Committee will meet next Thursday to discuss funding for K-12 schools. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, wants to increase state support by $1.4 billion – including major infusions for special education, general aid, and mental health. It would be a windfall for districts after years of mostly stagnant funding.
But the Joint Finance Committee recently axed some of the tools Evers wanted to use to generate new revenue, creating a $1.4 billion hole. The Republican-dominated committee rejected Medicaid expansion, which would have saved the state money, and it rejected reforms to capital gains and manufacturing taxes.
Losing that potential revenue sets up a difficult path for new spending.
"The analogy I would use is a jigsaw puzzle,” said Dan Rossmiller, director of governmental relations with the Wisconsin Association of Schools Boards. “The governor had a vision for what he wanted the completed budget to look like. The Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee removed a couple major pieces from that puzzle. That’s going to make it very difficult for that puzzle to look like what the governor has envisioned."
On Wednesday, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau announced that the state would take in about $750 million more than expected in tax revenue. Legislators have not indicated a desire to use that money for K-12 schools.
For any of Evers' proposals to make it in to the Joint Finance Committee’s plan, they would need to win over at least five of the Republicans on the committee. Four Democrats and 12 Republicans make up the committee.
Rep. Joel Kitchens of Sturgeon Bay co-chaired the special Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding. He is a GOP legislator, but not on the finance committee.
“What the governor was proposing was not very realistic,” Kitchens said. “There are a number of things we have in common with what the governor proposed. But his price tag on some of the things, especially special education reimbursement, is just not affordable.”
Kitchens agrees that the state should provide more special education funding. Right now, there’s a major gap in how much districts spend on special needs students and how much the state gives them to offset expenses. Evers wants to more than double the state’s reimbursement rate, to 60%. But Kitchens says he thinks 30% is more realistic.
Kitchens said he also wants to help districts that are suffering from declining enrollment and make state funding more predictable for school districts.
Dan Rossmiller, with the state school boards association, says he expects the legislators to OK some kind of increase. But he predicts it will be much less than what the governor proposed.
School districts like Milwaukee Public Schools are watching the state budget process closely as they craft their local budgets. What happens at the state level determines 90% or more of the money districts have to work with.
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