The Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee voted Thursday to expand funding to tackle substance abuse and dementia, as lawmakers work within a tighter-than-expected budget in the session's final days.
Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday said it would be "a bit of a challenge" to approve more than $20 million in new spending this session. The state is expected to finish the budget cycle with about $135 million on hand.
Joint Finance Committee chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the $20 million figure is "similar to where (Republican legislative leaders) are at" and resulted from conversations among Walker and those lawmakers.
Nygren's bill would provide $2 million in state grants for treatment alternatives and diversion (TAD) programs that provide alternatives to prison sentences for criminals with substance abuse problems.
The programs are operated at the county level, assisted by funding from the state. Currently, the state has 34 TAD projects involving 32 counties and three Native American tribes. Eleven counties and one tribe were denied funding due to lack of funds during the most recent application period, Nygren said.
"The TAD model is proven to be successful in helping people who suffer from addiction to re-acclimate to society as contributing members of their communities," Nygren said.
The measure was approved unanimously, but Democrats on the committee used the vote as an opportunity to chastise their Republican colleagues for past budgeting decisions. They argued Republicans have put the state in a position where it can't fund proposals like creating a student loan refinancing authority or addressing problems within the Department of Corrections.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, blamed the state's lower-than-expected budget projections on "shortsighted budget decisions" and noted that GOP leaders have alluded to the next state budget being "just as rough in this past one."
"From my perspective, every budget’s a rough budget," Nygren said. "You make tough decisions, you set your priorities and you live within those priorities and the dollars that you have."
The committee also voted to approve about $3.6 million in funding to fight and treat Alzheimer's and dementia. Bills included in the package would fund Alzheimer's research, respite care and dementia care specialists.
The package passed unanimously with the exception of a bill providing $50,000 to the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, voted against.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, applauded those efforts but argued the state could have done more if Republicans would have agreed to accept the federal Medicaid expansion.
Nygren argued that although some might call the bills "small efforts," it's hard to know how important they might be to a person or family struggling with Alzheimer's or dementia.
Other bills approved on Thursday would:
- Make digital jukeboxes subject to the same sales tax conditions as their vinyl counterparts.
- Create mental health pilot projects and make information more readily available about the availability of inpatient psychiatric beds.
- Make changes to the state Department of Natural Resources' managed forest land program including eligibility requirements and taxes .
- Provide $70,000 in grants for drug law enforcement in Lafayette County, which would allow the county to join a nearby drug task force.
The bills approved by the finance committee will now go to the full Legislature.
As the total allocated for new spending adds up, it's still unclear whether a set of college affordability bills pushed by Walker will make it through this session. The package would cost about $6 million.
In his State of the State address, the governor urged legislators to work quickly to pass the bills by the end of the legislative session. He said Wednesday he thinks it's still a possibility.
"I think for us it’s still, compared to some of the other ideas out there that would break the bank, from others out there, I think what we’ve put on the table in the State of the State is reasonable," Walker said.