Janesville Woodman's ice arena and convention center

By Erik Gunn/Wisconsin Examiner
Republished with permission

MADISON — Republicans on the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee on Thursday gave Gov. Tony Evers some of what he asked for to help the state’s tourism industry, a little more than half of the state surplus funds he proposed for the state’s building program.

The Republican led Joint Committee on Finance deleted the Janesville ice arena and community center, projects in Milwaukee including a soccer arena and an arts center in the heart of the city’s African American community, an upgrade for a Green Bay train museum and a new University of Wisconsin engineering building.

With only Republican votes, the committee approved a $2.4 billion building budget that includes $50 million in grants for communities and nonprofits for projects “having a statewide public purpose.” Grants would be limited to $4 million and applications would go through the state building commission, a body made up of six legislators, a citizen member and the governor.

Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), co-chair of the committee, said the 2023-25 building budget is the fifth one he’s been involved with, first as a building commission member and then as a finance committee member.

“Now this is by far the biggest,” Born said, and the state’s projected surplus, estimated at $6.9 billion, provided “the opportunity … to make these investments and not have to do it with debt service.”

The final budget transfers $1.2 billion from the state’s general fund to its capital fund — money that the state won’t have to borrow for its building projects. Evers had proposed a $2 billion transfer.

The committee’s building budget includes dozens of named projects, among them $4.8 million to help Children’s Wisconsin hospital expand its dental clinic, $10.8 million to help Marquette University upgrade its dental school and $7 million for a forensic science center in Wausau. Those and several other projects that are not for state-owned buildings are also required to raise private donations.

In addition, it provides $78.4 million toward the completion of a youth prison planned for Milwaukee, part of the replacement for the youth prisons at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, which have been designated for closure since 2017.

Before the Republicans presented their version, Democrats introduced their own version, essentially the full proposal that Evers had included when he introduced his budget in February.

“We’ve got to grow,” said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) as he argued for the governor’s version. “And growth requires investment. The capital budget, the building program, is one of the signature ways that the Legislature can support that growth — both directly in the jobs that are created by building vertical infrastructure in Wisconsin, but also the economic impact that vertical construction has on communities across the state.”

As has become routine, the Democrats’ plan was voted down 4-12 along party lines.

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said defunding the UW engineering building “makes no economic sense” and blamed it, and other UW-related funding cancellations, on hostility toward the university by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. “It only make sense if you think about it as political retribution,” Roys said.

Republicans defended their version of the budget, reiterating that it was still much larger than recent past capital plans. They also emphasized their decision to fund a number of maintenance projects.

“It shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, to anyone that this is a smaller [capital] budget than the one the governor proposed,” Born said before the 12-4 vote on the GOP building plan. “And we were clear from the get go that his was unrealistic. And, like many things, it becomes the job of this committee then to right-size it.”

Earlier Thursday, Goyke argued that the committee should accept the $750 million in broadband internet funding that Evers proposed for the Public Service Commission budget.

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report, the state will receive $700 million to $1.1 billion in federal broadband funds starting by July 1 from the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted in late 2021.

Goyke said how much Wisconsin will get and how it might be targeted were still unclear. “And we, the state Legislature, can fill that gap,” he said. “We can meet the need that the federal broadband dollars will not meet.”

Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), the other finance committee co-chair, said that internet providers and contractors in his district have told him they’re already at capacity for putting in new, higher speed service.

“I just think that it’s wise for us to keep our powder dry when it comes to additional state resources,” Marklein said. When investments have been made from the federal funds, “we can take a look at where that federal money has been deployed and how effective it’s been. And then the state will probably need to come back and fill in the holes in the gaps in service areas around the state.”

The PSC budget, with funds for cybersecurity and for a software upgrade for more sophisticated economic modeling when analyzing utility rate cases, but without any broadband money, passed 12-4.

In the Department of Tourism, the budget committee approved a $20 million one-time marketing boost. The plan also includes a number of grants to local tourism agencies, largely unrestricted.

Among those are $2 million for Green Bay — the amount that GOP lawmakers last week said they were seeking to help the community host the 2025 NFL draft — and $10 million for Visit Milwaukee, which is preparing for the 2024 Republican National Convention.

The budget increased funding for the Wisconsin Arts Board, with $407,200 enabling the board to leverage additional federal grant funds, as well as a $259,100 increase in annual funding starting in 2024-25.

And the committee appropriated $10 million to attract events to Wisconsin, placing those funds with the Wisconsin Department of Economic Development (WEDC) rather than the tourism department.

Most of the amounts were smaller than what the Democrats and Evers had proposed, while still higher than previous years’ budgets. The tourism budget also passed on a 12-4 vote after the committee rejected the Democratic alternative 4-12.