Education, child care come up frequently in public's first chance to sound off on state budget

NOW: Education, child care come up frequently in public’s first chance to sound off on state budget

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin lawmakers invited the public Wednesday to share their priorities for the next two-year state budget. During eight hours of testimony, speakers brought up the issues of education and affordable child care early and often.

Republicans in control of the legislature have already vowed to throw out Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' proposed $104 billion budget. The Joint Finance Committee will build its own budget from scratch over the next three months.

Wednesday's public listening session was among the first steps in that budget process. It was the first of four public forms scheduled to take place around the state this month.

When the session began, the Waukesha County Expo Center was packed with every seat taken. the subject of education frequently came up, but from different angles.

On one hand, school district officials and teachers union representatives called for more state funding. They decried how the current budget included a net increase of zero dollars for public schools. The GOP-controlled legislature said an increase was unnecessary in 2021 because of pandemic relief districts were getting from the federal government.

"We are facing a multi-million [dollar] fiscal cliff," DeForest Area School District Superintendent Rebecca Toetz said. "This should never be happening. Our district should not be in this position."

Advocates from the City Forward Collective also packed the session with representatives all wearing bright green shirts. They called on lawmakers to increase funding for charter and private voucher schools connected to the state's School Choice program.

"We fundraise money," Paulino Ornelas, a parent of kids attending St. Augustine Prep school in Milwaukee, said. "And it's still not even enough to fulfill the things we wanna do within the school."

In his 2023-25 budget, Evers proposed dipping into the state's projected $6.9 billion surplus to boost the state's school aid formula by $1 billion. Beyond that, he sought to increase the limit on how much districts can levy in property taxes.

Republican leaders said earlier this year they're open to increasing public school funding, but not spend as much as Evers proposed. Before Wednesday's listening session, the finance committee's co-chairs declined to offer any specifics as to how they'd like to fund education over the next two years.

"Now, we're in this part where we're gathering information around the state," Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said. "So we really haven't started the active discussions and negotiations on specific amounts on things yet in the budget."

Assistance for special education?

School officials at Wednesday's hearing also called on the finance committee to increase the share of special education costs covered by the state.

Currently, Wisconsin reimburses its districts for 30% of their special education costs. Evers' budget doubles that share to 60% over the next two years, but advocates at the listening session said they wanted to see the state cover 90% of schools' costs.

"We raised the hourly salaries of our educational assistants last year. Even after doing that, we have vacancies and have a revolving door with some of our assistant positions," Toetz said.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said he was open to increasing the reimbursement level, but said Evers' 60% plan was dead on arrival, let alone the 90% activists sought.

"That would probably be a large portion of K-12 funding, then, if we it that way," LeMahieu said. "And I would rather see it go to a per pupil basis."

Calls for extending child care relief

Another common call Wednesday was for the budget to prioritize child care affordability. Specifically, a number of speakers noted Evers' $340 million budget proposal to make permanent a pandemic relief program that provided state funding to child care operators with the goal raising wages in the profession, and also subsidizing employers who provide child care for their workers.

"Early childhood education has business model that does not work for families," Sarah Strehlow, a Milwaukee mother, said. "Early childhood educators do not make a living wage."

Strehlow said her family was in a tough spot when she tried to returned to work after having a child. They learned they'd no longer be eligible for public assistance because her wages would put them over the income limit. At the same time, she said the child care job she was seeking wouldn't pay enough to justify giving up the government aid.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson told the committee to think of child care as a jobs issue.

"When our youngest residents, when our kids receive enriching care, we're building a stronger future," he said. "When more parents can re-enter the workforce, we're strengthening our future as well."

LeMahieu said he agreed making child care more affordable was an economic priority, but described Evers' budget plan as excessive and unnecessary.

"Child care is a challenge, especially in some areas of the state of Wisconsin," he said. "So, we can look at it, but we need to be realistic with what money we can actually put into a budget."

What's next

The Joint Finance Committee is slated to host three more public listening sessions this month:

  • Tuesday, April 11, 2023 -- UW-Eau Claire, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 12, 2023 -- Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 26, 2023 -- Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The budget-writing committee will take up different sections of the budget over the next two to three months. Eventually, the legislature will sent its version of the budget to Evers. That's most likely to happen in June.

The governor then can sign the budget, veto parts of it, which he did in his first two budget cycles, or veto the entire thing. 

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