Capitol Insight: Joint Finance Committee
Frederica Freyberg and Shawn Johnson summarize the JFC recommendations this week.
Speaking of radio, state government reporter Shawn Johnson checks in from the Capitol tonight for what we call our "Capitol Insight" segment. Shawn joins us via Skype from the WPR New Bureau, executive suite, at the Capitol. Otherwise known as a broom closet, right Shawn.
I think that’s accurate, yeah.
So even apart from the trims to the UW System, it has been a very busy week up there before joint finance.
Yeah, they dealt with a couple issues that were big question marks last night. One of them being this provision that would exempt the rent-to-own industry from Wisconsin's Consumer Act. There was some question of what was going to happen with that. It went down last night on vote of 10 to 6. So that was taken out of the budget. Also, the budget committee dealt with the transportation budget yesterday, and that-- they solved the deficit there, largely by delaying some big highway projects, some big highway interchanges. And so that's left with a surplus of just about $5 million. That actually got a unanimous vote, got Democrats on board, because they added funding for mass transit, although they still moved mass transit into the general fund where it will have to compete against stuff like schools and health care funding in the future.
Well, that 16 to 0 vote is usual, certainly, in these times. But also this week joint finance earlier voted on party lines in favor, as you know, of Governor Scott Walker's proposal to allow the sale or lease of state property. It could include such icons as even the state Capitol. But under the vote, such property sales would require joint finance committee approval. Sales would not, however, be subject to the bidding process. Shawn, you also talked to some of the members of joint finance on this topic.
Yeah, and you know, ostensibly this is something that was designed to help the state sell power plants, but as you mentioned, it's pretty broad. Here’s just a sampling of some of the debate you heard in the joint finance committee, first from senate Republican committee co-chair, Alberta Darling, and then from assembly Democrat, Jon Richards.
There’s not a chance this committee would sell the Capitol. I mean, let's get real. Who would sit on this committee and make a decision that’s not in the best interest of the state. And who on this committee would approve a sale if it had not been transparent and hadn't been competitive?
The scope of this is breathtaking. It is huge. And as we go down the field, under your proposal, the only goalie is this committee. I don't take a lot of comfort in that, to be honest with you. And it's very possible for someone to come up and say, yes, state of Wisconsin, I know you are in a jam, I can help you with that jam by buying all your dormitories, and here’s a wad of cash.
The budget writing committee also this week approved another of the governor's proposals which is expected to trim the food stamp roles in Wisconsin. Under the provision, able-bodied adults without children receiving Foodshare, Wisconsin's version of food stamps, would be required to work or be in work training for 20 hours a week to be eligible for the benefit. Of the more than 850,000 people enrolled in Foodshare in Wisconsin, there are nearly 63,000 designated as able-bodied adults. According to the legislative fiscal bureau, about half of that number would likely drop out of the program because of the requirement. Income guidelines allow the benefit for those under 200% of the federal poverty level, that's about $39,000 a year for a family of three. And the average benefit is $191 a month.
The fiscal bureau reports additional state employees would be needed to administer the new work requirement, but whereas Foodshare benefits in Wisconsin are 100% federally funded, any cost savings from reduced enrollment would go back to the feds. We talked with the executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee about this change to the program.
The short and sweet of it is, we going to spend $33 million statewide to create a food stamp employment and training program that is going to, as a result, lose $72 million in federal funding that would normally pour into our state. And an economic multiplier of $1.69 on top of that, which is what food stamps create for communities. So we’re going to spend money to lose money.
Now Tussler, of course, adds that this would hurt recipients, of course, of Foodshare that lost that benefit because they couldn't take part in the work training program for reasons like, they didn't have transportation to get there. She says that we really ought to expect more dependence going forward with these new changes on charity, things like food pantries.
Yeah, and the nice thing about having these fiscal bureau research papers in front of you is that there's no doubt that this plan would cost the state money going forward. The fiscal bureau said with the changes they approved, your probably looking at about $22 million a year for state taxpayers going forward. Republican lawmakers really did not deny that at all during the committee, in fact they embraced it when this was up for debate in front of the joint finance committee. Here is Hudson GOP Representative, Dean Knudson.
Nobody wants to take away food from someone who is poor or hungry, that's not what this is about. It's not about taking away the fish, it's about teaching someone to fish. It's a training program. We are putting in state dollars because we recognize the value of work. And we are not doing this because we are going to save money for the state of Wisconsin, quite the opposite. We are willing to put money into this program because we recognize the value of work.
And in a story we have been following, the budget committee this week also approved the governor's proposal to give the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources two additional positions to regulate the fast growing frac sand industry in the state.
The DNR says that it could have used ten positions for such regulation, and Democrats on the committee ventured a motion for the higher number but it failed on party lines. Frac sand is used in the hydraulic fracturing of rock to extract natural gas and oil, mostly in the oil fields of North Dakota. So, lots of action this week, Shawn, obviously, big action. But even more to come next week.
Yeah, like any budget process for this one, they really left a lot of the big issues for last. And so it still remains to be seen what they are going to do exactly with the governor's proposed tax cut, what they are going to do with Medicaid, where the governor is going in a much different direction than either Governor Jim Doyle or Tommy Thompson in terms of shifting people off of Badgercare and on to new federal health exchange. Then next week on Wednesday the budget committee is scheduled to debate school aid and major expansion of private school vouchers in Wisconsin. So we know that debate is ahead, and know the budget committee wants to wrap up its work, hopefully by June 4th.
So we thought we were talking a lot this week about this stuff, next week is even bigger. Shawn from the Capitol, thanks very much.