Policy Items Removed From Budget, Budget Committee Begins Its Work

Published by Liz Stephens on | Permalink

Although not required by law to do so, the Legislature’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (“LFB”) routinely responds to individual members’ requests to identify all of the non-fiscal policy items included in the biennial budget.  The LFB generally identifies these items as having no fiscal effect on the state budget or having policy implications that far exceed any potential fiscal effect.  This year, the LFB identified 49 such items included in the Governor’s 1,600 page budget document.  Among some of the more controversial non-fiscal policy items identified by the LFB include:

  • Converting the Natural Resources Board and the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to an Advisory Council;
  • Allowing the Governor’s Administration greater control over the state building process by limiting the Building Commission’s opportunities to exercise oversight over changes to projects and cost-overruns;
  • Requiring counties – rather than municipalities – to administer property tax assessments;
  • Requiring disclosure on property tax bills of each taxpayer’s proportionate share of the debt service on bonds issued by the taxing jurisdiction; the amount of taxes levied for the maintenance and operation of each taxing jurisdiction; the amount of taxes levied on other miscellaneous charges; and
  • Eliminating numerous oversight and reporting requirements for the private School Choice program. 

The Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (“JFC”) is considered to be one of the most powerful committees in the country, in large part because of its members’ ability to shape the final budget product.  However, another, lesser-known reason for that distinction is that the Committee’s Co-Chairs are given the authority to unilaterally determine which items they consider policy, and then remove them from the budget without a single vote ever being taken. 

This year, the Co-Chairs determined that 14 of the 49 items identified by the LFB should be removed from the budget and drafted as separate legislation for consideration by the legislature as part of its regular process.  The items slated for removal by the Co-Chairs include some of the Governor’s most controversial proposals, including his proposals to:

  • Create Advisory Councils out of the DATCP and Natural Resources Board;
  • Remove oversight over state building projects from the Building Commission; and
  • Transfer property tax assessments from individual municipalities to counties.

The remaining 35 items identified by the LFB as non-fiscal policy items left in tact by the Co-Chairs will now be considered by the full JFC, despite Committee Democrats’ attempt to remove them during the Committee’s first executive session.  That attempt failed on a 12-4 party line vote.  Future attempts to remove individual policy items will likely meet a similar fate. 

That’s not to say all votes the Committee takes will be partisan ones, however.  On Wednesday, April 15th, the Committee’s opening day, 18 of their 22 votes to approve items were unanimous.  Although that record is due in large part to the lack of controversial items on the Committee’s agenda, there is something about the process that the JFC uses that makes it a more collegial committee than most. 

Still, major items loom large on future agendas.  And, although the leaders from both parties in the Senate seem to agree on the need to eliminate Governor Walker’s cut to K-12 education in the first year of biennium, there remains a major chasm between the leaders as to what the appropriate size of the investment should be.  Similar issues exist between the parties on what it means to preserve SeniorCare, the state’s successful prescription drug program for the elderly; whether the state’s community-based long-term care program is in need of restructuring; and, how to give the UW System flexibility while still maintaining affordability. 

To be sure, more bipartisan votes are on the way from this Committee.  But, at least in regard to the state’s major budget items, even the JFC isn’t immune from the incipient creep of partisan politics. 

Filed Under: state budget, Wisconsin, Governor, Scott Walker, Nygren, Darling, policy, natural resources board

Budget Hearings Conclude, JFC Set to Begin Voting…Maybe

Published by Liz Stephens on | Permalink

Every budget year, the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and its non-partisan budget office, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (“LFB”), must complete a number of routine – if not ministerial – tasks prior to taking a single vote on the budget bill.  Typically, those actions are bookended by the JFC receiving budget briefings from major agencies and cabinet-level departments, (held March 2, 3, and 4), and a series of public hearings on the budget bill, (held March 18, 20, 23 and 25).  In between, however, a number of other important actions are completed, including the LFB’s release of a budget summary, and numerous other reports detailing tax and fee modifications, the use of fund transfers, and a general fund condition statement.   

This budget cycle, that process was completed nearly three weeks ahead of schedule as compared to recent budgets, and is consistent with the Governor’s and Legislature’s stated desire to complete budget deliberations no later than June 31, 2015, if not earlier.  However, four key issues have emerged that could prevent an on-time budget for the first time since Scott Walker was elected Governor.  Those issues include:

  • K-12 funding and the expansion of the statewide school voucher program.
  • Spending and revenue-generating alternatives for the state’s transportation fund.
  • Cuts to the University of Wisconsin System.
  • State-local financial support for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Although July 1, 2015 marks the statutory deadline for adopting a new budget, there are only minor consequences if the legislature fails complete its work by that date.  Unlike the federal government, which shuts down if a new budget is not adopted by Congress, state government continues to operate on a cost-to-continue basis until a budget is signed into law.  With few exceptions, most state programs can operate on a cost-to-continue budget for many months before facing a funding crisis. One exception is the Medicaid program, a sum-sufficient appropriation, which requires the government fund all program expenditures on a routine basis.   Oftentimes, the Medicaid program faces programmatic increases in the hundreds of millions of dollars from one biennium to the next and, without the authority to implement cost-saving measures, the Department of Health Services can quickly find that it lacks the resources to pay its bills. 

Still, the smart money is on the passage of an on time budget.  Late budgets have become somewhat of an anomaly, with the last one occurring in 2009 when Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the Assembly and a stalemate emerged.   Already, legislative leaders have hinted at plans to reduce the cut to the UW System (while scuttling the Governor’s proposal to give it greater independence); identified alternative funding mechanisms for the Milwaukee Bucks’ arena; and, pledged to increase K-12 spending with the new revenue likely to be revealed by the LFB’s revenue estimates to be released in May. 

Despite this progress towards resolving some of the budget’s major issues, however, this year doesn’t have quite the same feel as recent budgets that, by comparison, seemed to sail through the legislature.  Democrats and Republicans alike have indicated that some of the Governor’s cost-saving proposals – like scaling-back Senior Care and revamping Family Care – are all but dead.  It’s unclear whether the Senate and the Assembly share the same vision for K-12 spending, UW System or the Bucks.  There has been little progress towards a palatable solution to the transportation funding crisis.  And, while the LFB’s revenue estimates are likely to produce additional revenue, it’s not likely to produce a windfall as it did during the 2013-15 budget deliberations. This year’s revenue estimates are expected to be more in the order of saving a few programs slated for elimination than authorizing historic property tax cuts. 

The bottom line is that there’s a lot in this budget that both parties want to change.  While the budget deficit facing the state isn’t as severe as it has been in recent years, there are more programs on the table to be saved---and that costs money, money that is yet to materialize. So, while a number of the JFC’s statutorily required functions may be behind it, the real heavy lifting is yet to begin.  And this year, that may mean that there is some extra time before the first vote is ever taken.

Filed Under: Budget, Scott Walker, state budget, Legislature, Wisconsin Legislature, Milwaukee Bucks, UW System, K-12 funding, Transportation Fund

Property Assessment Consolidation Proposal Raises Questions From Local Governments

Published by Liz Stephens on | Permalink

As part of his 2015-17 biennial budget proposal Governor Scott Walker has recommended consolidating municipal (town, village and city) property tax assessment into a county wide assessment where, with limited exceptions for 1st and 2nd class cities, counties would administer the system.  The proposal would consolidate the state’s 1,851 taxing districts into a single assessment office in each of the state’s 72 counties.  In addition, the equalized value system of assessments would be eliminated in favor of annual full market value assessments.  Counties could charge municipalities up to 95% of the cost of performing assessments in 2015. 

Although this proposal may represent a dramatic shift away from the current property tax assessment system, it is not a new concept, nor is it a partisan one.  In 2009, under former democratic Governor Jim Doyle, state revenue Secretary Roger Ervin floated a similar plan.  Ervin cited inequity between state and local equalized values; lack of uniformity across jurisdictions; and inefficient administration as rationale for making the shift.  Local government groups, especially the Wisconsin Towns Association, objected and cited as a primary concern their inability to control the costs of providing the service if it was moved to the county.  Ultimately, the proposal was not adopted.

Just as in 2009, local government groups are once again raising questions about the proposal.  Following is a brief summary of some of the concerns raised by each of the three major local government groups, including the Wisconsin Counties Association, the League of Municipalities and the Wisconsin Towns Association as well as individual counties and municipalities.

Wisconsin Counties Association:

  • The proposal represents a new mandate.
  • The 2017 implementation date is not feasible. 
  • The funding mechanism is inadequate. 
  • Click here for the WCA release. 

League of Municipalities:

  • The 2017 implementation date is too ambitious. 
  • The cost of the county assessment should not be part of the municipal levy.
  • The cost of assessing all parcels at full market value is more expensive than the current system. 
  • Payments to counties from municipalities for the costs of assessments will be inequitable. 
  • The opt out provision should be more flexible. 
  • The provision could interfere with the long-term contracts between some municipalities and private assessors. 
  • Click here for the LWM release.

Wisconsin Towns Association:

  • The proposal erodes local control. 
  • Full market value assessments are more expensive than equalized value assessments for taxpayers and municipalities. 
  • The proposal reduces competition in the marketplace. 
  • Click here for the WTA release. 

According to Rick Chandler, the state’s current revenue secretary, the proposal would generate cost savings at the state and local level and result in improved quality of property assessments.  Now, it is up to the Legislature to decide whether the alleged benefits outweigh the concerns raised by local governments.  

Filed Under: Scott Walker, state budget, Budget, property tax, county wide assessment, Rick Chandler

Significant Changes to State’s Environment, Natural Resources Programs Proposed in Governor’s Budget

Published by Liz Stephens on | Permalink

Although Governor Scott Walker proposed a number of sweeping changes to education policy, transportation funding and UW System administration, also included in his proposed budget were significant changes to the state’s environment and natural resources programs and agencies. 

Among the most significant modifications are:

  • Prohibitions on the Stewardship Fund from obligating new debt for land purchases until 2028;
  • Changing the natural resources board to an advisory council from a policymaking body;
  • Elimination of earmarks for a number of grant and loan programs administered by the Department of Natural Resources; and
  • Discontinuation of grants under the PECFA fund.

Although significant portions of the Governor’s budget will be adopted without modification by the Legislature, certain provisions have attracted attention from both policymakers and stakeholders and will be subject to closer scrutiny than the majority of those items included in the budget.  Among those items receiving a closer look from legislators, include:

  • Stewardship fund modifications;
  • Clean Water Fund modifications; and
  • Authorization for increased bonding authority for a number of state grant and loan programs. 

Following is a full list of significant modifications to the state’s environment and natural resources programs included in the Governor’s budget.  More information will be provided as additional and updated information becomes available.  However, your Stafford Rosenbaum attorney or government relations team can also provide additional information on an ongoing basis.

Highlights of changes to funding and programs affecting the state’s environment and natural resources include:

  • Increases the general obligation bonding authority for nonpoint source pollution abatement and targeted runoff management programs by $7,000,000.
  • Increases the general obligation bonding authority for urban nonpoint source cost-sharing programs by $5,000,000.
  • Recommends allowing revenue from contaminated removal bonds to be used for contaminated sediment remediation projects located outside of the Great Lakes Basin, increases bonding for these programs by $5,000,000 and appropriates funding all debt service on new and existing pollution abatement bonds from the environmental fund.
  • Reduces funding for watershed nonpoint source contracts by $770,000 in each year and funding for urban nonpoint source environmental aids $813,200 in each year.
  • Transfers $1 million in each year of the biennium from the agricultural chemical cleanup fund to the nonpoint account of the environmental fund.
  • Eliminates grants for certain programs in the first year of the biennium including: (a) environmental education; environmental assessments; (b) Wisconsin bioenergy initiative; (c) extension recycling education; and (d) solid waste research and experiments.
  • Establishes an agricultural water-quality initiative using $250,000 SEG annually in existing soil and water management grants for the implementation of nonpoint source pollution abatement practices.
  • Recommends transferring all regulatory authority related to the review of private on-site wastewater treatment systems, as well as position and associated funding from the Department of Safety and Professional Services to the Department of Natural Resources.
  • Transfers authority from the natural resources board to the secretary of natural resources and changes the board to a council, which is an advisory body, rather than a policymaking entity as under current law.
  • Requires DNR to develop a plan to move the headquarters of the Division of Forestry from the city of Madison to a northern Wisconsin location, including a description of the costs of relocating the headquarters, a timeline for implementing the relocation, and a list of location options.
  • Eliminates DNR’s authority to award discretionary urban forestry grants to local governments and certain other entities for activities relating to trees and tree projects in urban areas and limits the purposes for which DNR may award cost−sharing urban forestry grants to damage caused by disease or catastrophic storm events.
  • Provides that, if timber cutting is required under the terms of an MFL management plan, the owner is not required to obtain DNR approval of the cutting if prior notice is provided to DNR by a cooperating forester.
  • Prohibits DNR from obligating amounts under the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson land acquisition stewardship conservation program beginning in fiscal year 2015−16 if the general fund annual debt service under the stewardship program exceeds $54,305,700.  (Note:  This provision has the effect of imposing a moratorium on stewardship land purchases until 2028.  The program is set to expire in 2020.)
  • Requires DNR to set aside an additional $7,000,000 in fiscal year 2016−17 and an additional $7,000,000 in fiscal year 2017−18 to be obligated for the purpose of infrastructure improvements to the Kettle Moraine Springs fish hatchery.
  • Increases DNR’s bonding authority by $4,000,000 to contract public debt to fund a dam safety program, the debt service on which is paid from the general fund, by $4,000,000.
  • Increases certain fees for vehicle admission receipts, which a vehicle must display to enter any state park or certain other properties under the jurisdiction of DNR and increases the nightly fees for use of a campsite in a state park, state forest, or other lands under the jurisdiction of DNR.
  • Eliminates various grant and financial assistance programs administered by DNR, including:
    1. A program that provides annual grants to nonprofit corporations for certain urban open space objectives.
    2. A program that provides grants to nonprofit corporations that conduct activities related to the ice age trail.
    3. Funding for interpretive programming at the Northern Great Lakes Center.
    4. Two programs that provide grants to nonprofit corporations to conduct various conservation activities.
    5. Funding for the operational costs of the Florence Wild Rivers Interpretive Center.
    6. A program to award contracts to nonprofit corporations to assist nonprofit river management organizations.
    7. A program to award contracts to nonprofit corporations for lake classification and management projects.
    8. Funding to repair the Fox River navigational system.
    9. A program to award grants to counties to fund a percentage of the salary of a professional forester.
    10. Funding for a forestry and fire prevention study.
    11. A program to provide grants certification for master logger certification or logger safety training.
  • Transfers policymaking authority from the DATCP board to the secretary of agriculture, trade and consumer protection and changes the board to a council, which is an advisory body, rather than a policymaking body as under current law.
  • Increases the general obligation bonding authority for the Soil and Water Resource Management program by $7,000,000.
  • Transfers $1,000,000 from the agricultural chemical cleanup fund to the environmental fund each fiscal year of the 2015−17 biennium for grants to groups of farmers who assist other farmers within a watershed to conduct activities to reduce nonpoint source pollution.
  • Eliminates funding to and administration of the PECFA program by July 1, 2017. 
  • Modifies the Environmental Improvement Program by permitting privately owned or nonprofit public water systems to be eligible for loans, expanding eligibility for the loan program, and providing the Departments of Administration and Natural Resources additional flexibility in administering the loans, potentially reducing debt service over the biennium.
  • The Governor’s budget recommends allowing safe drinking wter loans to be made to privately owned nonprofit public water systems.  In addition, the budget recommends amending eligibility for unsewered municipal projects to all require:
  • At least two-thirds of the residences be 20 years
  • Replacing the requirement that existing residences must have been constructed before 1972.
  • Repeals current law provisions that allow DNR to issue a general permit applicable to a designated area of the state authorizing discharges from specified categories or classes of point sources located within that area instead of issuing a separate permit to an individual point source.

For more information, or questions about these or other items included in the Budget, contact your Stafford Rosenbaum attorney or member of the Stafford Rosenbaum goverment relations team. 

Filed Under: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, natural resources board, stormwater, Nonpoint, PECFA, Clean Water Fund

2015-17 Biennial State Budget Introduced, Major Provisions Unveiled

Published by Liz Stephens on | Permalink

On February 3, 2015, Governor Scott Walker unveiled his $68.3 billion state spending plan.  The Joint Finance Committee subsequently introduced the appropriations bill, which is now known as Assembly Bill 21/Senate Bill 21.

Highlights of the major provisions of Governor Scott Walker’s spending plan include:

  • Proposed all funds spending of $35.9 billion in FY15 and $32.3 billion in FY16, including a decrease in GPR spending of 0.3% in FY15 and an increase of 6.7% in FY16.
  • Significant modifications to and expansion of the statewide school voucher program, including funding changes that will affect public school funding. 
  • No tax or fee increases to fund the state’s transportation programs, instead funding transportation-related programs with $1.3 billion in new bonding authority.
  • The governor estimates property taxes on the median-valued home will decrease by $5 in both fiscal years.
  • No modifications to sales or income tax rates.
  • Consolidation of and reform to state agencies and their operations.
  • Property taxes for the median-valued home will decrease by $5 in both fiscal years.
  • Elimination of approximately 400 state positions.

Representative John Nygren, Assembly Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance (JFC), recently laid out the timeline for consideration of the budget by that committee.  Co-Chairman Nygren has indicated that following the release of the budget overview by the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) later this month, the JFC will receive budget briefings from cabinet-level agencies and hold four regional public hearings.  Co-Chairman Nygren expects that these preliminary actions will be completed by late-March, enabling the 16-member JFC to begin its deliberations on the budget in early-April.  He expects JFC action on the budget to be complete by Memorial Day, allowing ample time for both houses of the Legislature to complete its action prior to the end of the state fiscal year on June 31, 2015.

Co-Chairman Nygren has indicated that the JFC will likely meet two times per week, typically on Tuesdays and Thursdays.   In addition, the JFC will impose time limits on debate, with each member allowed to speak twice per issue for a maximum of five minutes each time.  Additionally, the JFC will refrain from beginning action on new topics after 10:00 p.m. on days the committee is scheduled for executive session.

Although Co-Chairman Nygren’s predictions for completion of the budget mirrors the timetable of the prior two budgets, this state budget comes with significant challenges that could push enactment of the spending document past the statutory deadline.  Major issues yet to be resolved include:

  • K-12 funding and expansion of the statewide school voucher program.
  • Spending and revenue-generating alternatives for the state’s transportation fund.
  • Spending for University of Wisconsin System, including setting tuition rates.

In addition to these provisions, a number of provisions in the Governor’s budget have a significant impact on the state’s municipal governments.

Major provisions in the Governor’s proposed budget affecting municipalities include:

                                 Shared Revenue & Government Operations

Local Government Property Insurance Fund:  The Governor recommends closing the local government property insurance fund (LGPIF) to new policies and not renewing existing policies. The fund was originally created to ensure local governmental units had access to affordable property insurance.

Shared Revenue: The Governor’s proposed budget maintains current funding for shared revenue.

Levy Limits:  The Governor’s proposed budget leaves levy limits unchanged.  Municipalities may only increase their tax levies by the change in property values due to net new construction.
All current law exemptions to the levy limit program are maintained.

School Levy Tax Credit: The Governor’s proposed budget increases funding for the school levy tax credit by $211.2 million in the biennium to reduce property taxes by $105.6 million, or $5, annually.

Property Tax Bill Disclosure:  The Governor’s proposed budget requires property tax bills to disclose debt service and fees from each taxing jurisdiction, including their impact on the property tax.
The Governor’s proposed budget also requires that property tax bills explicitly inform taxpayers of the impacts of additional amounts levied pursuant to a referendum to exceed a tax levy limitation.

Property Assessment:  The Governor recommends beginning the transition from the current system of municipal property assessment to countywide property assessment in 2016 and requiring completion of the transition for the 2017 property assessment year. All properties will be required to be assessed at 100 percent of fair market value by the 2017 assessment year.  Multiple counties may form consolidated assessment regions at their discretion.
First- and second-class cities may choose to maintain municipal assessment provided they meet certain requirements.

Municipal Boundary Recording:  The Governor’s proposed budget consolidates the process related to recording all changes in municipal boundaries by transferring responsibility from the Secretary of State to the Department of Administration.   The Governor’s proposed budget provides funding to the Legislative Technology Services Bureau (LTSB) to create and manage a statewide database of changes to municipal and ward boundaries for the purposes of enhancing the precision of calculating state and federal aid.

                                                   Health & Human Services

Mental Health Funding:  The Governor’s proposed budget provides funding to assist counties with creating mental health crisis services programs pairing law enforcement with mental health professionals to create a best practice model.  The Governor’s proposed budget consolidates mental health funding into the community aids program for the state purpose of providing flexibility and creating efficiencies.

Emergency Detention Processes:  The Governor’s proposed budget would require Milwaukee County to align its emergency detention processes in a manner similar to other county processes throughout the state. 
The proposal also requires counties to provide community-based crisis assessment by a mental health professional (physician who has completed a residency in psychiatry, a psychologist, or a licensed mental health professional) prior to an emergency detention and allocates $1.5 million to assist counties with this effort in FY 16.

Family Care:  The Governor’s proposed transitions the program to an outcome-based model providing long-term care, primary care and acute care services, including self-directed care; creates operational efficiencies for managed care organizations; and streamlines operations in the Department of Health Services, and makes the following recommendations:  Services will be provided to participants through managed care organizations (MCO) operating statewide; Provides members with a choice of MCOs in order to determine which best meet their needs; Regulates MCOs as insurance entities under the jurisdiction of the Office of Commissioner of Insurance.

Dementia Care:  The Governor’s proposed budget provides funding to support dementia care specialists in selected aging and disability resource centers across the state.


Surcharges: The Governor’s proposed budget eliminates exemptions from the circuit court fee for four offenses (failure to wear a seatbelt, violations related to smoking in a public place, failure to carry proof of motor vehicle insurance, and failure to carry a handicap permit) to ensure equity among similar violations.

Surcharge on Felony and Misdemeanor Convictions:  The Governor recommends creating a $20 crime prevention funding board surcharge for each felony and misdemeanor conviction.


Mass Transit Operating Aids:  The Governor’s proposed budget funds Mass Transit Operating Aids at current levels.

General Transportation Aids:  The Governor’s proposed budget funds the increase to General Transportation Aids adopted in the 2013-15 budget and retains current level funding for General Transportation Aids based on funding in fiscal year 2014-15.

Elderly and Disabled Specialized Transportation Aids:  The Governor’s proposed budget renames the program “Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities Specialized Transportation Aids.” Funding is increased for the program by $438,000, a 1% increase in funding in each year of the biennium.

Bicycle and Pedestrian Facilities (Trans 75):  The Governor’s proposed budget proposal repeals state requirements that exceed federal law related to whether bicycle and pedestrian facilities be included in the construction of new highway projects.

Community Sensitive Design:  The Governor’s proposed budget proposal prohibits WisDOT from funding Community Sensitive Design on highway projects resulting in $7 million in savings.

For more information on how Governor Walker’s biennial state budget affects your municipality, contact your Stafford Rosenbaum attorney or any member of the firm’s Government Affairs practice.

Filed Under: Walker, JFC, Budget, Nygren, Shared Revenue, Levy Limits, Transit, GTA