12/17/2016, Eau Claire Leader Telegram – Rare bipartisan agreement was on display Friday morning at UW-Eau Claire.
Regional Republican and Democratic legislators attending the Holiday Legislative Breakfast put on by the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce agreed that transportation and education funding will be front and center next session when lawmakers debate the 2017-19 state budget.
Whether that harmony can be maintained as the Legislature seeks answers to those problems remains to be seen, but early indications were that representatives of both parties understand the significance of the challenges regarding both issues and even agree more state funding likely will be needed to address them.
At the same time widespread consensus exists that many of Wisconsin’s highways are in dire need of repair, the state’s transportation fund has a nearly $1 billion projected shortfall for the next two years and GOP Gov. Scott Walker has indicated he strongly opposes raising any taxes or fees to close that gap.
But even legislators from Walker’s party on Friday argued for increased funding for roads, with Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, saying, “I personally don’t think we can fix the transportation problem in the long term without addressing the revenue side.”
Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she backs increasing state money for transportation without borrowing. She proposed raising the statewide sales tax by 1 cent for four years as a way to raise money to catch up on the backlog of worthy projects.
Rep.-elect Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, also said the state has to find a way to raise more money for transportation.
“It is essential we have great infrastructure. Our lifestyle depends on it,” Pronschinske said. “We need to find a long-term solution.”
The two Democrats on the panel, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma and Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire, also advocated for raising money to fill the pothole in the transportation fund.
“If we’re truly being responsible adults, we have to recognize we have to raise revenues,” Wachs said, adding that the state also needs to pursue passenger rail options that would take pressure off highways and particularly appeal to much-needed young workers.
Vinehout advocated a return to indexing the state gas tax to inflation, reforming license fees and assessing fees for private rail companies that use state-owned railways.
Education funding has been one of the state’s most divisive issues in recent years, with Democrats crying foul as the Republican-controlled Legislature cut UW System funding by $250 million in the current budget and public K-12 school funding by $2 billlion over the past six years.
Both Moulton and Bernier said they support the UW System’s request for a $42.5 million boost in funding plus a 2 percent pay increase for employees over each of the next two years, with Bernier adding that she believes UW employees are “long overdue for a raise.” Moulton called the UW’s request “reasonable.”
Wachs and Vinehout also said they strongly support the funding increase for higher education, with Wachs calling the effort to fix the funding formula “a matter of respect” for rural communities.
“Obviously, the UW System has been underfunded for a long time,” Vinehout said.
Regarding state support of K-12 public schools, several legislators talked about the need to change the state’s school funding formula to help rural schools struggling because of declining enrollments.
Bernier proposed lifting revenue caps for school districts that spend less than the state average per student.
That would be a way to help strapped districts without freeing up all districts to raise taxes, she said.
Rep.-elect Rob Summmer-field, R-Bloomer, said he recognizes the budget crunch that forces many rural school districts in his 67th Assembly District to repeatedly go to taxpayers with referendums is a major issue and he will be seeking potential solutions as he prepares to take office.
“It does all start with economic development,” Summerfield said. “If you can grow these rural communities, there will be a better tax base andthere will be more money for our schools.”
Wachs and Vinehout both said they supported the education budget proposal from state Superinten-dent Tony Evers that would increase public school funding by 2.7 percent in the first year of the biennium and 5.4 percent in the second, or by $707 million overall. Evers also proposed increasing funding for special education and English language learners and changing the school
funding formula to aid rural and high-poverty schools.
Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, reported that he was sick and did not attend the breakfast, which was part of the chamber’s Eggs and Issues series.