Broadband Factors into Wisconsin Budget Surplus Discussion

With an unexpected $818 million of extra tax revenue headed their way, Wisconsin legislators are contemplating what to do with this new windfall, and one of the ideas under discussion is broadband expansion.

by Eric Lindquist, Leader-Telegram / January 28, 2020

(TNS) — It’s not often people learn they have an unexpected $818 million heading their way.

But that’s essentially the situation facing Wisconsin legislators after the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau released a new projection late last week estimating that state government will take in $818 million more in tax revenue than previously projected in the 2019-21 state budget.

State law requires half of the amount exceeding budget estimates to be deposited into the state’s rainy day fund, but that still leaves an estimated $452 million, after adjusting for changes in costs and interest earnings, that could be used in multiple ways.

The announcement prompted a variety of proposals from Chippewa Valley lawmakers for what to do with the excess revenue, ranging from cutting taxes or paying down debt to spending the money on mental health initiatives, juvenile corrections reform, broadband expansion or aid for struggling farmers.

While Republican leaders who control the Legislature immediately began discussing an election-year tax cut, GOP lawmakers from west-central Wisconsin said they were open to that proposal but also had other ideas about how the money could be deployed.

Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, said he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to plan significant new government spending outside of the regular budget process, so he advocated just leaving the money in the state’s general fund or using it to pay off debt early.

“If you get a bonus at work, you probably don’t go buy a new truck,” Quinn said. “We found money we didn’t know we had, so why not pay the bank what we already owe.”

State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said she is pleased the new revenue estimates will result in significant payments to the state’s rainy day fund.

“It’s a matter of time until we hit a recession — that’s economics 101 — so we will need more money in that fund to lessen the cuts when revenues are reduced,” Bernier said.

However, Bernier also has a local project in mind that she thinks would be a good way to spend some of the surplus not earmarked for the rainy day fund. She plans to propose that the state pay to remove old, unused, fenced-off buildings from the grounds of the former Northern Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Chippewa Falls.

Other possibilities include funds to add mental health beds or address homelessness, she said.

Regional Democrats had their own ideas about how to use the unexpected windfall.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said the money offers a good opportunity to make some one-time proactive investments that could save the state money in the long run, such as addressing the youth mental health crisis, building new juvenile corrections facilities or pursuing projects to solve the affordable housing shortage.

“It’s like a house. What kind of prevention work can we do to stop a huge problem and expense we might have down the road?” Emerson asked, adding that the money offers a chance “to invest in our state because that will make it a better place for people to live, work, play and go to school.”

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, said the Legislature should invest the state’s budget surplus back into rural communities to provide partnership opportunities and mental health resources for farmers and to expand rural broadband access through initiatives included in the ‘Better Broadband’ bill package he introduced Monday.

“It’s time we take this approach to ensure Wisconsinites in all corners of the state have equitable access to opportunity and success,” Smith said.

The region’s other Democratic state senator, Patty Schachtner of Somerset, also expressed support for renewed investment in rural communities, possibly including support for family farms, broadband access, natural resources, mental health care and general health care access.

Schachtner’s office provided a list of 18 bills addressing those issues that spokeswoman Sarah Smith said, if enacted, would cost only a small percentage of the overall budget surplus.

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, said the surplus shows Wisconsin is on the right track but wasn’t ready to commit to a specific plan for the money.

“It is too early to say how the funds should be used, but we need to be cautious to not use the funds to grow the size of government, and look at ideas to return the surplus to the hard-working taxpayers of the state,” Petryk said.

Likewise, Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, said he could support reinvesting the money in northwestern Wisconsin, setting it aside in the rainy day fund or returning it to taxpayers.

“I’m open to anything that would help our area,” Summerfield said, citing funding more mental health beds in the Chippewa Valley and aid for farmers as possibilities he could get behind.

Several lawmakers acknowledged much discussion will be necessary between Democrats and Republicans before a plan is devised for the surplus.

“This is a negotiation,” Emerson said. “This is what happens with shared government.”

©2020 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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