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Governor makes budget tour stop in New Richmond

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Gov. Scott Walker makes a point to some of those who gathered at WITC last week during his visit. Listening to the governor are (from the left) Tim Adams, Bob Beskar, and Derek Biggs. (Raymond T. Rivard photograph)2 / 4
Gov. Scott Walker took time to have his picture taken with some of the students and staff who attended his visit to WITC last week. They are (from the left) Bill Mathison, Dave Brown, Gov. Walker, Bob Beskar, Dan Scheeringa, Tim Adams and Leis Henk. (Raymond T. Rivard photograph)3 / 4
Gov. Scott Walker paid a visit to WITC in New Richmond Friday, Feb. 10, to talk about the biennial budget. (Raymond T. Rivard photograph)4 / 4

State budget tour

On the heels of his announcement of the state of Wisconsin's biennial budget last week, Gov. Scott Walker stopped in New Richmond Friday afternoon to tout said budget and its impact on the taxpayers of the state.

Walker's budget includes $11.5 billion for K-12 education, which includes increases for both 2018 and 2019 in per-pupil student aid. The budget includes new money for rural school aid, school social workers, early college credit costs and performance-based funding for Milwaukee public schools.

A portion of those education dollars will go to expanding charter schools and school vouchers, which provide state funds for students wishing to attend private schools.

In addition, his budget also calls for a 5 percent tuition reduction for Wisconsin residents enrolled in undergraduate programs in the UW-System. The budget request covers the $35 million to backfill the tuition cut and offers $100 million in new higher education spending.

His stop last week in promoting that budget was made at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in New Richmond.

"I'm glad to be back at WITC," the governor said in opening his brief speech made in the small motors shop at the local tech college.

Describing his tour last week and the effort to continue to promote his newest budget, Walker said, "The reason we're able to make investments is because of reforms we put in place the last six years where we've got more people employed ... the highest percent of people in the workforce," he said.

"All those things: Lowering the tax burden, easing the regulatory environment, investing in the workforce — all these things have led to a better economy ... and therefore, more revenue is coming into the state. At the same time, the reforms that the Legislature worked on have helped state and local governments better manage the resources they have. So because of the better budget situation, because of the economy and good fiscal management ... that's led to what we call reform dividends ... and we're proposing to reinvest in our priorities. At a listening session across the state, the number one thing I have heard about from employers ... is that [businesses] have jobs, they just don't have enough people to fill those jobs."

In describing the labor shortage that has become an issue across the state, Walker said, "One of the challenges of having such a low unemployment rate and the highest level of employment in the state's history is that there's not enough people to fill those positions."

That said, the governor indicated that the state's top priority is to utilize the "reform dividends" as an investment back into the things that will help build the workforce.

"That means investing ... in the K-12 system. We're doing more in the 'early college credit program' to help K-12 schools, particularly high schools ... helping them to do more to partner with technical colleges across the state to allow high school students more access ... whether they take that early credit to a technical college or the University of Wisconsin System ... we want to give our students more opportunity early on ... to get them into the workforce ... all these things are advantages moving forward."

Walker also described the efforts to put more money into programs such as the Fab Labs at schools across the state.

"We're doubling the amount we invest into our Fab Labs ... again, the more experiences we give students, the better off they are. Along with that, we are building youth apprenticeships through the Wisconsin Fast Forward training programs.

"There's something our technical colleges do exceptionally well ... they understand there are two customers — the student, but also employers — and that serving employers helps our students more because when they walk out the door [of the school], they already know they are going to walk into a job or have jobs waiting for them. That's been the mantra of tech colleges all along."

Walker also said that in addition to all the state is putting back into education and training, this budget also allows the state to "give back to our taxpayers in the form of tax relief and reduced fees in the state. That allows us to continue with reform dividends for the future."

The governor said income taxes would also go down under his plan, identifying $592 million in new tax relief.

"Now is not the time to raise taxes," Walker said, listing the state's gas tax among those he proposes not to hike — a likely signal for fellow Republicans backing a gas tax increase.

Others respond

While the governor was making his tour across the state touting his budget, there were others who weren't quite as convinced.

One of those was State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who said, "governors like to put the good news in headlines and the bad news in small print. Over the next several weeks, we will learn more about the small print details when the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau releases their budget summary. Vinehout's Senate district includes Pierce and Pepin counties.

"Until then, Wisconsin citizens would be well advised to reserve judgment on Gov. Walker's plan."

But not all area legislators shared Vinehout's skepticism.

Freshman Assemblyman Shannon Zimmerman was one. The River Falls Republican told RiverTown Multimedia that the governor's call for lower taxes and greater investment in education earned high marks. "Now the devil's in the details," Zimmerman said.

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, also said she's awaiting details — including financial reports from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau — but called Walker's proposals for increased education funding "encouraging. That was welcome news," she said.

As for the tuition cuts for higher education, Zimmerman said he backs [that] proposal and also supports Walker's plan to tie $42.5 million in new funding to performance results at the state's universities.

"I love it," he said. "We have to have a measuring stick."

Harsdorf said she's OK with the concept of performance funding but is waiting to see how certain metrics are evaluated before she offers full-fledged support.

"That needs some work," she said.

In a prepared statement, UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen said he was in attendance for the budget address. He said he was "very encouraged" by the UW funding request.

"There is broad understanding that public higher education is key to the state's future, including developing the talent needed to move Wisconsin forward," he said, adding that he'll continue working with elected leaders during the budget process "to ensure the best possible outcome for the UW-System and our campus."

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