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Budget committee releases $9 million for reentry programs and tourism


Budget committee releases $9 million for reentry programs and tourism

Jun 07, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Baylor Spears Erik Gunn
Budget committee releases $9 million for reentry programs and tourism
“We are not taking up items that are not properly before us, including things like the PFAS request,” Co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said. (Screenshot via WisEye)

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee voted to release $9 million in funding on Thursday that will be used to create a program to help people who were incarcerated transition back into life and a program to boost tourism.

The Department of Public Instruction and child care advocates criticized the Republican-led committee for not acting on other funding requests, including money for literacy programs across the state and grants to child care providers. Those are among several funding requests that lawmakers have refused to take up in recent months, including PFAS and hospital funding. 

Lawmakers approved the release of $4 million for a new reentry program for people who were incarcerated under the Department of Corrections. 

The agency has been instructed to contract with at least one organization to establish a community reentry center under Wisconsin Act 233, signed into law in March. The center will serve as an initial point of contact for health, identification, financial, housing, employment, education and supervision services for people released from state correctional institutions

“This is an important pilot project, something that will create a center in Milwaukee that will help folks transition from incarceration, especially people that have been incarcerated for a long time who find a number of challenges in working their way back into the community, and this can be very helpful to them,” committee co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said. “I think it’s a good program and I’m hopeful that it will help a lot of folks here in Wisconsin transition.”

The committee also voted to release $5 million for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to establish the “Opportunity Attraction and Promotion Fund.” The agency was directed to create the program under Wisconsin Act 169

The agency will be able to award grants under the program to help assist with the costs of major opportunities and events that will draw national exposure and drive economic development and visitors to Wisconsin. Under the law, successful applicants will be able to use grant funds to bid against states and jurisdictions outside Wisconsin to attract an event to Wisconsin and to host any events secured through a competitive bid.

“We’re showing confidence WEDC and the Department of Tourism that they can continue to work together to bring things that are going to be beneficial to the state of Wisconsin,” Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) said during the meeting. “We’ve heard a lot, now that Top Chef is out there, that… they have what they call the halo effect. It isn’t just that the programs are going on. It’s that people across the country are now seeing great things that they can do when they come to visit Wisconsin.”

Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) criticized Republicans for only releasing $5 million — half the $10 million set aside in the 2023-25 budget, which WEDC requested.

“If this proposal were on Top Chef, I’d probably ask it to pack its knives and go,” Andraca said. “It’s half of what they’re asking for and we’ll get half of the benefit.” 

Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake) said lawmakers would only be releasing $5 million since Wisconsin is already about halfway through the current biennial budget.

“This seems like it’s appropriate,” Dallman said of the amount the committee doled out, adding that he was “happy to get the program started and be able to see how successful it is for the future.”

Child care, literacy, PFAS, hospitals not on the calendar

The money released on Thursday is just a fraction of the funding requests that have been submitted to the committee in recent months. Republicans have refused to release several of those requests, including $125 million for PFAS funding, almost $50 million for literacy programs and $15 million to support hospitals in western Wisconsin. The continued delays in the release of funding prompted recurring discussion Thursday. 

“We are not taking up items that are not properly before us, including things like the PFAS request,”  Born said at a press conference ahead of the meeting. “Obviously, the governor vetoed that bill. That’s on him.” 

Child care advocates were the first to bring attention to recent delays, noting that a recent funding request to support the Child Care Counts program was not on the committee calendar.

The same week JFC received the request for the tourism funds, the Evers administration also requested the release of $15 million that would go to support grants through the Child Care Counts program. While the finance committee’s Republican majority originally budgeted the money for a revolving loan program, Gov. Tony Evers used his partial veto to turn it into a grant program.  

The Wisconsin Care Coalition, which includes child care providers and other advocacy organizations, urged lawmakers to release the funding, saying it would help centers provide care to children and help families afford care.

“All we are asking is for the Joint Finance Committee to fulfill that funding allocation that was passed into law,” the coalition said in a statement. “Everyday child care centers across Wisconsin are having to make decisions on whether to stay open or to close permanently. The Child Care Counts program has provided a critical lifeline, but because of inaction by the state legislature those funds have been cut by 50%.”

Following the meeting, State Superintendent Jill Underly called on Republicans to release  funding to implement new state literacy programs under Wisconsin Act 20, signed into law almost a year ago. Of the $50 million budgeted, only $327,400, to support the Director of the Office of Literacy, has been released so far. 

State lawmakers and Evers are suing each other over the literacy programs, also stalling the funding. In their lawsuit, GOP lawmakers argue that the legislation was not an appropriations law and therefor did not allow Evers to use his partial veto power to eliminate language. Their suit asks the court to bar DPI from spending the money as if Evers’ veto stands. Meanwhile, Evers has sued, arguing that the Legislature is “improperly withholding” the money.

“Every day of delay makes it increasingly difficult to meet the requirements of Act 20 – a bipartisan law designed to help Wisconsin kids learn to read – and our children are the ones who will pay the price,” Underly said in a statement. 

“We have been working in partnership with the legislature throughout this process, and I know our shared goal is to improve literacy education and outcomes for all Wisconsin students. This week, we announced the hire of a Literacy Director to keep moving this work forward,” Underly continued. “We renew our call on the Joint Committee on Finance to release the allocated funding so we can meet our shared goal — helping kids learn to read, so they can read to learn.”

Battling with memos

A dispute about the ability of the Joint Finance Committee to release already budgeted funds to address PFAS contamination and health care needs in the Chippewa Valley also escalated Thursday. 

On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton), the Senate minority leader, traded attacks with Born and Marklein over a Wisconsin Legislative Council memo that states the committee could release those funds.

The memo also included a caveat about hypothetical court rulings that might block such action as a result of veto decisions — a prospect that the GOP JFC co-chairs have cited in defending their refusal to release the money.

On Thursday, Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) and Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) released a Legislative Reference Bureau memo identifying times when the JFC had released money on budget items despite partial vetoes.

The 88-page memo identified 10 instances in which the committee had gone ahead with action  “on items that were partially vetoed by Governors [Scott] Walker and Evers since 2011.” The instances were initially identified by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, according to the reference bureau memo.

The memo included individual budget items, the language that governors had removed with the partial veto, the fiscal bureau’s budgetary paper for the JFC when it put the item on its agenda, and the minutes of the JFC’s subsequent action.

In their statement, Smith and Emerson focused on $15 million set aside to address hospital closures in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. Evers used his partial veto power to remove a restriction in the original legislation that limited the money to bolstering emergency services in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.

“Republicans want people to think they can’t release the $15 million, but in fact they’ve done it at least ten times in recent history,” Smith said in the joint statement.

“Let’s make this abundantly clear — it is a deliberate choice by Republicans to not release these funds,” Emerson stated.

They noted that Born and Marklein in a joint statement Wednesday had specifically pointed to a “sue-happy” Evers in arguing that their fear of being sued for releasing the money was justified.

“This is the weirdest and saddest excuse yet — cowering about litigation from the Governor for doing what he requested — I mean, come on,” Smith said. “The excuses are beyond ridiculous at this point. They’ve done it before — just do it again.”