Harsdorf says lots of work will go into state budget

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As discussions on Gov. Scott Walker’s biennial budget proposal heat up, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) reminds voters this is just the start of the process and urges them to ask questions and talk to lawmakers.
“This is the governor’s budget, and it’s now in our hands,” said Harsdorf Monday. She’s a returning member of the 16-member Joint Committee on Finance that will get the next crack at the budget.
Last week, Walker formally introduced his proposal, which would give the University of Wisconsin System more autonomy but less money, trim state aid for K-12 schools and avoid transportation fee or gas tax increases.
“There’s a lot that I don’t even know about (Walker’s proposal) yet,” said Harsdorf, who is now in her sixth term on JCF — four times as a senator and twice while in the Assembly.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau is analyzing Walker’s budget proposal and preparing reports, said Harsdorf. In a month or so, agency briefings will start, and by mid-March JCF will set public hearings. She expects four hearings around the state, set geographically to assure there’s one relatively close to all citizens.
Once JCF finishes the public hearings, about the first part of April, it will work on its version of the budget and hopefully finish by the end of May.
At that point the budget will go to the Legislature, one house at a time, with the intent of reaching budget agreement close to the June 30 end of the fiscal year.
That document then goes back to the governor, who has line item veto power.
Walker’s proposal would reduce state school aids the first year of the budget and increase them the second year for a net reduction of $135 between the two years, said Harsdorf. Levy limits would remain, and a school district couldn’t increase taxes without passing a referendum.
But, said Harsdorf, last session, after the budget was adopted and as state revenues increased, the Legislature raised school aids. She expects the current Legislature would also increase aids if revenues are higher.
Two years ago Walker also proposed no increase in K-12 funding, but lawmakers were committed to increasing funding if there was additional revenue and they did when there was, said Harsdorf.
“We’re seeing a growth in revenue,” said Harsdorf, adding that the Legislative Fiscal Bureau is projecting a 3.7 percent increase in revenues in the first year of the biennium and 4 percent in the second.
She said the shortfall in the current budget is caused by higher costs of Medical Assistance which are $600 million more than expected.
“That is putting pressure on every other aspect of the state budget,” said Harsdorf.
Also last session, the Legislature “brought down” tax levies of the technical colleges, which meant a reduction in most people’s property tax bills as those local levies dropped by about half, said Harsdorf.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion regarding school funding,” she promised.

UW System

The Walker proposal would make the UW System a “public authority.”
Harsdorf said she is a longtime advocate of giving the UW campuses greater flexibility in procurement and purchasing, in personnel, in tuition and with building projects, which wouldn’t require state Building Commission for projects that are funded solely by gifts and grants.
Now all university purchases must go through the state — with the idea that pooling purchasing saves money. But sometimes, said Harsdorf, savings can be realized by buying locally, which also helps the local community.
UW System administrators have been discussing this with the governor’s office, seeing the public authority route as an opportunity for long-term benefits, said Harsdorf.
She said the change wouldn’t privatize the UW System but continue to provide state funding while giving more flexibility over many issues that are currently regulated by state law.
The change would allow the Legislature to lay out its expectations for the system and hold it accountable, said Harsdorf, adding that the mechanics of that depends upon how the legislation is written.
The public authority change in Walker’s proposal is partnered with a $300 million state funding cut over the next two years.
“Obviously it’s a challenging reduction,” said Harsdorf, adding that it will affect different campuses differently.
“The plan is going to receive a lot of attention, a lot of discussion,” she added.
The governor’s proposal also stipulates that tuition, which has been frozen for the last two years, will be frozen for another two years.
Harsdorf called attention to the deletion of some language regarding tuition reciprocity.
That proposed change, she said, would mean simply that tuition reciprocity would be negotiated by UW Board of Regents not by the governor as it has been in the past: “The Board of Regents will have oversight over the agreement.”

Transportation funding

Walker’s budget proposal would increase bonding for the Transportation Fund but has no bonding for the capital projects budget so overall bonding is less.
There has been a lot of concern with increasing borrowing even though levels are less than they have been, said Harsdorf.
In the past, she said, because the Transportation Fund has been tapped for other uses, there was little interest in raising highway fees and gas taxes because the money might be diverted to other uses.
With the adoption last fall of the referendum requiring that revenue generated by transportation fees and taxes be used solely for transportation projects, that may change, said Harsdorf.
“I hope we can have conversations about that,” she said.
She said the Department of Transportation also needs to look at the expense side and at efficiencies to make dollars go further.
Harsdorf encourages those with input or questions to use her office as a resource, either by phone or email, to get more information. The phone number is 608-266-7745 and the email address is sen.harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.
Judy Wiff is a regional editor covering St. Croix and Pierce counties for RiverTown Multimedia