- Associated Press - Thursday, April 4, 2019

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Tony Evers‘ proposed budget wouldn’t do enough to attract workers to Wisconsin and his proposals, including increasing the minimum wage, would actually hurt businesses, Republican lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget committee argued Thursday.

Democrats disagreed, saying raising the minimum wage is long overdue and Evers is focused on changes that would improve the standard of living and make the state more attractive for workers. Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman called the proposed minimum wage increase a “modest, measured, incremental approach” that was “completely reasonable.”

The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee dissected aspects of Evers‘ proposed budget related to workforce development, the prison system and natural resources on Thursday. It was the second of two days of agency briefings that come before the Republican-controlled panel holds public hearings across the state that start Friday.

The agency briefings shed light on major disagreements between Republicans who control the Legislature and Evers and his fellow Democrats. No votes are taken, but points raised by Republicans reveal areas of Evers‘ proposed $83.4 billion two-year spending plan that are the most vulnerable to being cut or substantially altered by the Legislature.

Evers wants to increase the $7.25 minimum wage to $10.50 by 2023, which would make the first increase since 2009. Frostman said the increase would increase the standard of living for workers, allow them to pump more money back into the economy and help deal with the worker shortage problem by making Wisconsin more attractive.

But Republican Rep. Mike Rohrkaste said increasing the minimum wage and repealing Wisconsin’s “right-to-work” law - which Evers also wants to do - would make Wisconsin less attractive to business owners. Rohrkaste told Frostman he wasn’t “focused on the real problem” of filling existing job vacancies.

Fellow Republican Sen. Luther Olsen said “people are begging for employees” and the budget ignores that.

“You really missed the mark and it doesn’t seem like ‘the people’s budget’ is in tune with what reality is out there in this state,” Olsen said, referring to the worker shortage problem.

Evers has dubbed his proposal “The People’s Budget” because he said it is responsive to what people across the state said they wanted after eight years under Republican Gov. Scott Walker. During the hearing, Evers tweeted that his proposal was “pretty simple” and that workers will stay in the state if there are good public schools, they are paid livable wages, natural resources are protected, investments are made in public transit and there’s access to high-speed broadband internet.

Republicans were also critical of Evers‘ plan to reinstate the prevailing wage for publicly-funded projects. That law, which unions supported, sets minimum salaries for construction workers on public projects. Republicans also spoke out against Evers‘ call to increase unemployment benefits and make it easier to access them and to repeal the “right-to-work” law, which was passed by the Republican Legislature and signed by Walker and prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay fees to cover their union representation.

Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr defended Evers‘ plans for the prison system, including boosting salaries for guards, loosening laws for marijuana possession and delaying the closure of the troubled Lincoln Hills juvenile prison. That prison, which has been under a federal investigation for years, is slated to close in 2021 and be replaced by smaller, regional facilities.

Carr told lawmakers that he supports closing it as soon as the new facilities were ready. Evers has said the 2021 date, which the Legislature set last session, was too soon.

Evers‘ budget would legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana. Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany asked Carr if he was comfortable with that.

“I am,” said Carr, who was a U.S. Marshal for nine years and is a 30-year veteran of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.

Republicans also questioned Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole about why Evers didn’t include any new plans for combatting chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer herd.

Cole said the governor is waiting for science to reveal the best practices for dealing with the disease and that he wants to let other states take the lead on research rather than spend money duplicating their efforts.

“My goal is to come back to you … (and) we’ll be able to better define a go-forth strategy as it relates to this very, very detrimental impact on the herd,” he said. “(But) we should be doing research somebody else is doing.”

He added, though, that the DNR must do a better job persuading hunters to turn in deer heads for testing.

Out-state public hearings on Evers‘ budget begin Friday in Janesville.

Likely starting in May, the committee will reconvene in Madison and begin taking votes on changes to the spending plan before advancing it to the full Legislature for consideration. The current budget, passed under Walker, runs through June 30.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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