Rep. Dianne Hesselbein hosted the first of two listening sessions to hear constituents’ priorities and answer questions as the state’s biennial budget process is underway.
The April 10 Zoom session was attended by just two people who heard an overview of the $91 billion budget presented by the Democrat from Middleton. It includes a capital budget of $2.38 billion and investments in education, the environment and healthcare.
Hesselbein relayed some projections from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
It is projecting revenues increasing by $569.3 million, 3.2%, in the current fiscal year and $180.9 million (1.0%) in fiscal year 2021, and by $833 million (4.6%) in 2022-23.
Hesselbein’s presentation showed the budget’s five main focuses. The first four include: climate change, environment and clean energy; economic recovery and development; investing in education and childcare; and healthcare access.
The fifth, under the heading of “for the people,” included several policy measures such as nonpartisan redistricting reform, automatic voter registration, funding for homelessness prevention, juvenile justice reform, gun safety, expanding the Treatment Alternatives and Diversions program, extending in-state tuition to students of undocumented status and others.
Climate Change, Environment and Clean Energy
Among the initiatives in this section is the provision of $1 million over the biennium for training for green jobs. An office of environmental justice would also be created, which Hesselbein and her staff later described as coming from a task force led by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
A $2 million portion would be used for monitoring and testing for PFAs, a chemical compound previously used in firefighting foams and found in some household products. It creates a Great Lakes Erosion Control program at $5 million.
To encourage the use of electric vehicles, The budget would allocate $10 million from the Volkswagen emissions settlement fund for vehicle charging stations and authorize $5 million in bonding for that infrastructure.
Hesselbein said she has heard from constituents about how important the Knowles Nelson Stewardship program is. Evers’ budget provides $70 million per year in bonding for 10 years.
“Certainly we have used that all over the 79th Assembly District throughout the years to have great spaces and places for people to be,” Hesselbein said, adding she is hopeful it can be kept in the budget.
Education and Childcare
The budget also makes a large investment in Wisconsin’s children, with $140 million to increase quality, affordability and access to childcare, and meets the state’s promise of supporting two-thirds of school funding.
Another priority is special education funding, including $710 million proposed over the two years.
“Something we’ve all heard about in this pandemic, I’ve heard about it in Waunakee and Middleton and DeForest, is increasing special education reimbursement rates.
There’s a lot that is happening with the pandemic and kids are having such a hard time, and this is something we do to boost the funds for this program and give us the funds we need,” Hesselbein said.
The proposal also includes a student loan borrower bill of rights and an Office of Student Loan Ombudsman, freezes tuition while funding it, and expands the “Bucky’s Tuition Promise to provide four years of free tuition to income eligible students at UW campuses.
Economic Recovery and Development
The budget puts forth $200 million in small business aid, while restoring bargaining rights for state and local government front-line workers, while repealing Right to Work.
It also expands family and medical leave and increases the minimum hourly wage to $9.40 in 2023 and $10.15 in 2024.
An investment of more than $600 million is included for transportation and road projects, and increases mass transit operating assistance, and $20 million in capital public assistance grants to replace public transit vehicles.
It also repeals the Darkstore Loophole.
One budget proposal calls for legalizing, taxing, and regulating recreational and medical marijuana.
“That was something when I was first elected, we heard about it a little bit, but certainly people are more engaged in that issue right now, and I think people realize that people are going just down south, just to Illinois, and spending their money there instead of spending it here for marijuana use,” Hesselbein said.
It’s estimated the state would see $168 million from cannabis sales, Hesselbein added.
Finally, $200 million of Evers’ budget would expand broadband access, a need particularly felt during the pandemic with remote learning and work, Hesselbein said.
“We’ve had students that can’t access, in certain parts of the state, to get online to talk to their teachers,” she added.
The budget includes Medicaid Expansion to save the state $1.6 billion over the two years. It also invests funds in infrastructure to expand long-term care.
Hesselbein emphasized the Healthy Women Healthy Babies initiative in the budget.
This would expand Medicaid eligibility for moms from 60 days to 12 months at a cost of $20 million.
It also creates a grant program to improve Black women’s health and increase grants to organizations working to reduce disparities related to maternal and infant mortality.
Funding is also included for nursing staff and CNAs to boost salaries for these workers.
We the People
Hesselbein said she and her staff created this category to highlight proposals in the budget they have heard are important to people in the 79th Assembly District.
One was nonpartisan redistricting reform, which she called “super important” to her.
“People should not be choosing their politicians by drawing these maps,” she said, adding Republican legislators are currently spending money on lawyers as they draw these.
Hesselbein has introduced a nonpartisan redistricting bill that mirrors Iowa’s, she said.
“It would not be spending taxpayer dollars. It would be using those nonpartisan bureaus…they would be drawing the map and then they would be having hearings all over the state,” Hesselbein said.
The Joint Finance Committee is currently holding meetings on the budget and has set up a portal to collect input: www.legis.wisconsin.gov/topics/budgetcomments. Comments can also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The public can view the next two budget hearings on wiseye.org at 10 a.m. April 21 and 22.
Joint Finance could vote on the budget in May, and then the Legislature is due to vote on it in June. But, that the vote could come later, Hesselbein noted.
“It could go all summer while the Republicans figure out what they want to do. And then we’ll see what the final budget looks like, if it’s something I can support or not,” Hesselbein said.