With Election Day approaching, state Assembly Republicans previewed their plans for 2017, calling for laptops or tablets to be issued to all high school freshmen, signaling a possible end to the University of Wisconsin System tuition freeze and saying it’s imperative to solidify state road funding — potentially with tax or fee increases or highway tolls.
Assembly Republicans’ “Forward Agenda” was released Wednesday in a state Capitol news conference by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, and other lawmakers.
The GOP lawmakers called for enhanced collection of taxes on Airbnb accommodations, classificationh of certain crimes against police officers as hate crimes, new steps to combat opioid addiction and creation of pre-tax savings accounts for workers to take leave to care for loved ones.
The news conference came as Gov. Scott Walker announced he will propose a “Back to School” sales tax holiday in the next state budget.
The proposed two-day holiday would start on the first Saturday of August 2017 and include school supplies, computers costing less than $750, and clothing items costing less than $75 each, according to Walker’s office.
Vos told reporters Wednesday that Assembly Republicans would support the measure.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement that “it is not clear at this time whether it will garner sufficient momentum needed to pass” next session.
The comments Wednesday show lawmakers and Walker looking ahead to 2017 even as the fall election nears. All Assembly and half the state Senate seats will be on the Nov. 8 ballot. Republicans hope to protect their current 63-36 advantage in the Assembly, their largest majority since 1957, and a 19-14 edge in the Senate.
Wednesday’s developments also showed Republicans who control state government are at odds on a few key issues — the largest of which may be transportation funding.
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha teed off Wednesday on the proposal from his Republican counterparts, saying it doesn’t address issues such as creating jobs, improving education or alleviating student loan debt.
“Today the people of Wisconsin have been offered only empty platitudes from the same legislators that have failed to deliver for the last five years,” Barca said in a statement.
Assembly Republicans reiterated Wednesday that they’re open to all options, including tax or fee increases or tolls, to erase a projected $1 billion deficit in funding for road projects. The deficit figure is based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau and assumes no borrowing for roads — a big shift from the most recent budget, which lawmakers and Walker balanced by delaying road projects and increasing borrowing to stave off further delays.
Vos said taxes, fees or tolls should be considered only after cost-saving measures have been exhausted.
“If in the end, revenues are required, it is not cheaper to borrow the money or delay the projects than it is to pay for it upfront,” Vos said.
That sets up a potential clash with Walker, who has held firm to a stance of not increasing taxes or fees without a corresponding decrease elsewhere in the budget. Some Senate Republicans also have said they oppose tax or fee increases to pay for roads.
Walker’s administration next week will lay out its spending blueprint for the next two years when the Department of Transportation releases its 2017-19 budget request.
Vos noted the state Department of Transportation is studying the feasibility of toll roads in Wisconsin. Vos, who repeatedly has voiced support for toll roads, said Wednesday that he thinks they could help finance large highway projects in southeast Wisconsin.
Toll roads would be new for Wisconsin, which traditionally has taken a different path than neighboring states such as Illinois that use tolls to pay for road maintenance and upgrades. Wisconsin primarily has relied on fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to finance its roads. Implementing toll roads on U.S. interstates requires approval from federal officials as well as state leaders.
Vos said the proposal to issue laptops or mobile devices to all high school freshmen would be universal and not contingent on the incomes of students’ families.
“Every single student should have the opportunity to have that same access to technology, be they someone who’s poor in the inner city or wealthy in the suburbs,” Vos said. He did not explain how the proposal would be financed — a potential challenge, given projections that show lawmakers and the governor may need to erase another deficit in the next budget.
A projection released last year by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau showed a $210 million structural deficit looming for the 2017-19 budget.
There are nearly 70,000 high school freshmen in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. Vos noted that some districts already provide all students with laptops or tablets.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said Wednesday that the governor “is interested in more details on the computer proposal.”Walker, asked about the cost of the proposal, told reporters in Milwaukee that Assembly Republicans “haven’t run the numbers through us.”
Also Wednesday, Vos said Assembly Republicans hope to extend the current UW tuition freeze, which has been in place since 2013, for the duration of the next two-year budget, which runs from July 2017 to June 2019. But Vos said he would consider supporting a “small increase” in tuition in the second year of the budget.
Walker also said last month that he’s open to lifting the UW tuition freeze in the second year of the budget.
Vos and other Assembly Republicans declined to say Wednesday if they’d support another cut in state funding for the UW System. State aid for the System was slashed by $250 million in the current budget.
Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, said Assembly Republicans want to make sure tourism and lodging taxes are being uniformly collected for all types of accommodations. He singled out Airbnb, the popular short-term lodging website.
“Companies like Airbnb, we look forward to working with them to make sure they’re paying their fair share of revenue,” Swearingen said.
Collection of room taxes from Airbnb has been an issue in Madison, where Mayor Paul Soglin has discussed hiring a city employee to oversee those collections.