With Money Tight, Legislative Leaders Try to Prioritize Spending Plans

Earlier this week, Gov. Scott Walker suggested a $20 million cap on the cost of legislation set to cross his desk this spring.  While this could create a tight squeeze for lawmakers who are already considering bills that would spend much more than that amount, two key Assembly leaders signaled Thursday (Feb. 4) they will go along with the governor.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) says he’s comfortable with Gov. Walker’s spending limit and thinks it leaves room for other session goals.

Joint Finance Committee Assembly Co-chair, Rep.  John Nygren (R-Marinette), says he’s on board with the suggested cap but said it isn’t a hard cap if a pressing need arises. He also noted lawmakers could consider moving around existing funds to cover priorities.

“There’s money out there. Oftentimes, you just have to go find it,” Nygren told reporters.

The $20 million spending bar comes in response to a mid-January report in which the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau  adjusted down to $135 million the amount of money the state is projected to have in its general fund by June 30, 2017.  State law requires a minimum balance of $65 million, leaving the Legislature only about $70 million to use on new spending or tax cuts.

Lawmakers on the Senate side are taking a cautious approach.  Joint Finance Committee Senate Co-chair, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) acknowledges concerns in her caucus over the price tag for some of the bills now before lawmakers.

She says Senate Republicans are cautious about spending new money in this biennium considering current revenue projections. Darling says lawmakers will study their options with the bills.

On the priority list of items  lawmakers want to pass is a college affordability package he the governor announced last month ahead of his State of the State address. The package, which includes a tax deduction for student loan interest, is expected to cost about $6.4 million in the current biennium.

Thursday (Feb. 4) the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee approved a number of bills with a substantial price tag, including a package of bills supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos aimed at combating Alzheimer’s and dementia that would cost several million dollars and changes to the state’s managed forest land program that would cost considerably more state dollars, but not the college affordability package.

The governor also has yet to sign a bill overhauling the state’s civil service rules that is expected to cost about $6 million.

Where all this proposed spending in bills already advancing through the process will leave more recently introduced bills, such as those proposed as part of the Assembly GOP Rural Initiative, remains to be seen.