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One of the chief lawmakers writing the next state budget said Thursday that school officials and Democrats are exaggerating if they say schools are holding off on new spending because a new two-year state spending plan is not in place.

“I think that is all smoke and mirrors, quite honestly,” Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said of such concerns.

School officials told the Wisconsin State Journal last week that some schools are delaying hiring teachers or buying certain supplies because they don’t know for sure what they will get in state funding.

On Thursday, before a meeting of the budget committee, Democrats on the panel raised the matter anew, saying some school districts, including the Onalaska School District, are starting the year with substitute teachers instead of filling some positions permanently because the budget is late.

Schools in Milwaukee and some private voucher schools have already started a new school year.

Nygren said the public school advocacy groups that are now saying schools can’t be sure of state funding amounts for the coming year had earlier this summer rejected Assembly Republicans’ education plan because it included a smaller per student increase than what Gov. Scott Walker proposed and that they were counting on the larger payout.

“They can’t have it both ways,” he said. “Either they were counting on the governor’s promises (in their budgets) or they’re willing to look for changes.”

But Joint Finance Committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said schools are indeed having trouble with hiring because the education portion of the state budget hasn’t yet been decided by the committee, much less the entire two-year spending plan.

“That’s what I kept saying — we’ve got to get going,” Darling said. “School’s starting and we got to tell schools what their budgets are for that very reason. There are people they need to hire — they have vacancies they need to fill. And I think one of the biggest downsides of our taking this long was the fact that the schools could not go ahead and fill those positions.”

Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, said Thursday that because a state budget is not yet in place “it is prudent for our districts to take the conservative approach and put a hold on hiring and purchases until they have solid numbers from the state.”

“Developing a budget is difficult enough and not knowing state budget numbers complicates things further,” Kaukl said.

Walker has proposed $649 million in new funding for schools in hi s K-12 education plan, but Assembly Republicans and Senate Republicans have released their own education plans that don’t mirror Walker’s.

Nygren and Darling made their comments to reporters ahead of the first meeting of the budget-writing committee in more than two months. The committee is resuming its work on the 2017-19 state budget that is nearly two months overdue.

The committee is scheduled to take up the K-12 education portion of the state budget Monday. Darling said the committee hopes to wrap up its work the week of Sept. 5 and hopes both houses will vote on the full budget the next week.

On Thursday, the committee rejected a proposal from Walker to eliminate a program that brings locally grown food into public schools. Walker’s proposal would have reversed a nationwide trend the state helped pioneer eight years ago.

The proposal would have eliminated a state program coordinator position within the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and a 15-member council composed of agriculture, health care and education advocates who advise DATCP and the Legislature on farm-to-school matters, saving $86,200 a year.

The committee also approved a reorganization of the Department of Natural Resources that consolidates departments and divisions and reshuffles lower-level offices, aimed at providing relief to overburdened workers in its troubled water quality program and making state parks and wildlife management more efficient. A division overseeing drinking water quality, watershed management and fisheries would be eliminated.

The reorganization also requires DNR wardens to be the only DNR staff to have arrest powers in state parks. Currently, park rangers also are armed.

The committee also eliminated a property tax for forestry programs in the state, saving $26 on the property tax bill for a home worth $159,400. The tax generates $89 million annually.

In other action, the committee set the amount of money the state’s youth prison receives from counties over the next two years. An $8.7 million funding increase would be included in the 2017-19 state budget.

The new money would cover costs associated with services, beds and operations at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, which has been the focus of a number of federal lawsuits alleging abuse and has been under investigation for more than two years.

The increase comes after lawmakers on the committee voted earlier this summer to increase the rate county governments pay the state to house their most serious teen offenders at the Irma facility. Lawmakers set in the next state budget the daily rate for counties at $390 per inmate through 2018 and $397 through 2019.

The increase for counties is nearly $100 over current law and comes after the number of offenders counties have chosen to send to the facility after the allegations surfaced has dropped considerably.

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, objected to the Legislature increasing the county rate without discussing issues that prompted the need for the increases. She said the measure is a way to “back-door the Lincoln Hills issue that we as a Legislature have not dealt with.”

Walker and Republican lawmakers said they have reached a tentative deal on the rest of the budget, but the largest area of disagreement — transportation funding — is not yet scheduled for lawmakers on the budget-writing committee to take up.


Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.