Wisconsin school districts that spend less than most others would benefit from a new education spending proposal introduced by Assembly Republicans on Tuesday.
The plan, released one day after GOP leaders acknowledged negotiations over the state budget had all but reached a stalemate, would direct an additional $92 million in revenue limit authority for school districts that spend less than most others and an additional $30 million for the state’s general schools funding mechanism than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his own spending plan.
At the same time, the proposal would offer about $70 million less than Walker's proposed $649 million increase in per-pupil aid. It would also eliminate a requirement included in Walker's budget that in order to receive that aid, a district's teachers must pay at least 12 percent of their health care costs.
"This proposal is addressing a significant challenge, and that is equity in school funding," said Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who worked on the proposal with fellow committee member Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma. "This plan puts more money in the classroom when compared to the governor’s plan and current law."
The plan would also reduce the need for school districts to hold referendums, Nygren said, noting that 55 percent of the districts that have gone to referendum since 2011 have been low-spending districts.
Under the plan, districts could only hold referendums during already-scheduled spring elections or on general election days, with allowances made for special circumstances, such as increased costs resulting from a natural disaster.
Senate Republicans were cool to the plan even before it was fully unveiled. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, issued a statement pledging support for the governor's original K-12 proposal several minutes before Assembly Republicans released their plan.
"We will continue to look for ways to support low spending districts, but a proposal that raises property taxes and picks winners and losers within our school districts is a move away from the position of both the governor and the Senate Republican caucus. The Assembly package that was endorsed today is simply not the direction that this budget is headed," Fitzgerald said.
The plan would thwart Walker's campaign pledge to keep property taxes lower than they were in 2014, at the beginning of his second term. Property taxes on the median home under this plan would be $11 more than in 2014, but $121 less than in 2010 at the start of Walker's first term.
The governor has previously promised to veto any budget that includes a property tax increase. He told reporters on Tuesday he would also consider using his line-item veto authority to drive down property taxes rather than outright rejecting a budget that doesn't meet his specifications.
However, he said, he hopes to work with members of the Assembly and Senate to find areas of agreement.
"Our priorities in this budget, though, are about investments in student success and property tax relief," Walker told reporters in Wisconsin Dells. "We hope that the final version coming out of the Assembly and the Senate will be close to what we proposed, because that’s really, those two things are the key priorities of this budget."
The work of the Joint Finance Committee, which intended to meet on Tuesday and Thursday of this week, came to a standstill on Monday as Republican leaders acknowledged impasses in areas including transportation and education funding. Fitzgerald and JFC co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, both said it's possible the Senate and Assembly could end up splitting off to pass their own spending plans.
Nygren said on Tuesday it's unlikely the committee will be able to meet until some level of agreement is reached on education, because the funding impacts so many other areas of the budget.
"Republicans need to put aside their squabbling and do what’s right for the people of Wisconsin," Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement. "They should craft a budget in an open and transparent manner. They should pass a budget in a timely manner for municipalities, schools and transportation authorities to plan for the coming year. When many schools in Wisconsin are having trouble keeping their doors open, they don’t have the luxury of waiting for the outcome of petty political battles."
Both Nygren and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said their proposal is meant to be a a "starting point" for negotiations with the Senate and the governor. Vos accused Fitzgerald and the Senate of acting as a "rubber stamp" for Walker's budget.
"I’m willing to negotiate at any time, any place, anywhere, as long as people of good will get together and don’t draw hard lines in the sand before they’ve even heard the other person’s ideas," Vos said.