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Republicans OK reduced building budget, new prison process

Posted: 10:48 PM, Jun 11, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-12 03:48:11Z
Wisconsin state capitol

MADISON, Wis. — Republicans on the Legislature's budget-writing committee approved money Tuesday to begin building a new prison in Green Bay but eliminated funding to construct new state facilities to house juvenile offenders after Wisconsin's troubled youth prison closes, shifting those dollars to counties and raising questions about the state's role in housing young offenders.

The committee made the moves as it nears completion on revisions to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' state budget. The panel expects to wrap up its work Thursday by inserting tax cuts in the spending plan. The budget will then go to the full Legislature.

Evers' budget called for spending $2.5 billion on construction projects around the state. Republican committee members dumped that plan Tuesday evening, voting instead to spend about $1.9 billion. The GOP plan sets out $5 million to purchase land and start the bidding process to build a new prison to replace the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution. Evers' construction budget didn't include any plans for a new prison, but Republicans have been pushing for a new facility in Green Bay for months.

The Republican plan also makes dramatic changes to bipartisan plans to close the youth prison outside Irma.

The prison has been plagued by allegations of guard-on-prisoner abuse for years. An FBI investigation ended this past April with no criminal charges, but the prison has been at the center of multiple lawsuits, including one that resulted in a federal judge ordering sweeping reductions in the use of pepper spray, solitary confinement and shackles.

The Legislature last year unanimously passed a bill requiring the Department of Corrections to close the facility by January 2021. The bill authorized $25 million in borrowing to build regional state juvenile detention facilities, $15 million in borrowing to expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center and $40 million in borrowing to fund grants for counties to build their own juvenile detention centers.

Evers has said the Department of Corrections can't get the replacement facilities built before 2021. His construction budget included an additional $194 million for the facilities.

Republicans on the committee walked that back dramatically Tuesday, setting out only $44 million for the Mendota expansion. They also shifted all borrowing authority laid out in the 2018 bill for state facilities to the counties.

The move left state Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democratic finance committee member who co-sponsored the closure bill, flabbergasted.

"What do you want? Another study? What are you waiting for? You think we won't need a facility for juveniles at all? Is that what you're saying?" he said. "Look, the plan passed unanimously a year ago. This (plan) presses pause."

Republicans didn't offer a direct explanation for the move. Republican Rep. Mark Born said he understands Goyle's concerns but the state facilities are still in the pipeline and corrections officials can continue to work on them.

Evers' budget would have supplied $1.1 billion in additional funding for University of Wisconsin System building projects. Republicans on Tuesday scaled that back to about $1 billion. They earmarked $31.7 million for classroom renovations, down from the $38 million Evers proposed, but retained his plans to spend $125 million on Camp Randall Stadium and Kohl Center upgrades.

The only UW projects that received no money under the Republican plan were plans to finish work on a new science hall and upgrade dorms at UW-La Crosse.

In other action Tuesday the panel approved Evers' proposal to extend the Department of Natural Resources' stewardship program through mid-2022. The DNR uses borrowing authority under the program to purchase land for preservation and recreation. The committee, however, scrapped the governor's plan to raise factory farms' pollution permit fees from $345 to $660 and impose a new $3,270 fee on the farms payable every five years.

The committee is now all but finished with its revisions to the budget. The panel plans to reconvene Thursday morning to insert the tax cuts into the spending plan.

Republicans are eying a roughly $400 million middle class income tax cut but have not released details about how it would be paid for or what it would mean for the average taxpayer. The budget committee planned to vote on that Thursday.

Evers and Republicans have been at odds since even before the governor took office. Republicans called a lame-duck session to weaken his powers, and neither side has shown a willingness to give on any significant items in the budget.

Evers has powerful partial veto powers, which he can use to craft the Republican-approved budget into something more palatable to Democrats. But he also hasn't ruled out vetoing the entire budget, which would require both sides to start from scratch.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos warned Evers on Tuesday that if he vetoes the entire budget the GOP will simply reduce spending on health and transportation in subsequent proposals.

Republicans wouldn't take any budget-related action in the summer, waiting instead until October to attempt override votes. Republicans would need to convince Democrats to vote with them to be able to override any veto.

Wisconsin's current budget runs through June 30. If there is no deal enacted by July 1, there would not be a government shutdown like occurred at the federal level and in other states. Instead, in Wisconsin current funding levels continue until there is a new budget enacted.