Wisconsin budget panel approves technical college increase

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans on the Legislature's budget-writing committee approved more money for Wisconsin's technical colleges on Thursday, but fell $11 million short of what Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats wanted to spend.

The Joint Finance Committee is working on making changes to Evers' budget before the full Republican-controlled Legislature votes on the two-year spending plan, likely sometime in June. Evers has threatened to veto the entire budget if Republicans alter it too much from what he proposed.

Democrats, in line with Evers' latest proposal, proposed increasing funding for technical colleges by $36 million with half of that coming from a $753 million budget surplus. Instead, technical colleges will get $25 million more over two years under what Republicans approved Thursday.

Democrats argued that was not enough, pointing to a 30 percent cut in technical college funding approved in 2011 that has yet to be recouped. Other than 6 percent in 2014, aids to technical colleges have not increased since then. Republicans said they were being fiscally responsible and spending what the state could afford.

Technical College System President Morna Foy praised the $25 million increase, calling it a "powerful statement of support for Wisconsin's technical college students and the employers anxious to hire them."

Republicans also voted to increase funding for workforce development programs by about $12.5 million. Evers on Wednesday called for a $15 million increase.

Rep. John Nygren, the Republican co-chair of the committee, said Republicans planned to increase funding for technical colleges and workforce development even before news of the budget surplus came Wednesday.

Nygren said Assembly Republicans' priorities for the $753 million surplus was cutting taxes, paying down debt and saving for an economic downturn. That differs from Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who said he wanted to use some of the money to pay for roads and capital building projects.

Nygren said it was too early to say what tax cuts Republicans may get behind. Repealing the personal property tax, an issue that's been discussed for years, has support from some Assembly Republicans, he said.

Evers used $56 million of the surplus to pay down state debt. He called for saving the rest, outside of $33 million for technical colleges and workforce development. Democrats on the budget committee said they were on board with Evers' plan.

Republicans earmarked $1 million more for programs at the state's minimum and medium security prisons to help prisoners find work when they are released; $6 million for career and technical education incentive grants; and $5 million for youth apprenticeship programs.

Republicans previously rejected other key parts of Evers' workforce development proposal, including raising the minimum wage, repealing the "right to work" law approved under former Gov. Scott Walker and overhauling the unemployment insurance program to increase benefits.

The committee, over objections from Democrats, also rejected Evers' proposal to increase need-based college grants by $17 million over two years.

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