The Wisconsin Assembly concluded its last regular floor session of the year last week with a full slate of votes, including a vote to send a $248 million tax cut to Gov. Tony Evers for his signature.
The Assembly also acted on a package of bills designed to boost the state’s dairy industry, approved legislation to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products, and passed a seclusion and restraint bill that supporters say will ensure that students are protected from harmful practices and that parents are kept informed.
Evers has not said whether he will sign or veto the tax cut legislation, but he has been critical of it. The measure would use the state’s budget surplus to save taxpayers $106 a year on average and increase the standard deduction. Another $45 million would go to increase exemptions to businesses’ personal property taxes.
At the end of the day, Assembly speaker Robin Vos said the session was highly productive.
“The Assembly regular session ended on a high note with the passage of the GOP tax cut plan and a comprehensive agricultural aid package,” Vos said. “Once again Republicans voted to return surplus dollars back to the taxpayers. The Assembly approved a $250 million middle class tax cut with bipartisan support.”
Vos noted the bill also pays down state debt to the tune of about $100 million, reduces personal property taxes, and makes a rainy day fund deposit.
In addition to the tax cut legislation, the Assembly approved a bill to raise the age to purchase cigarettes, tobacco, nicotine, and vapor products from 18 to 21. Bill sponsor Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield) said the measure was needed to combat a recent increase in tobacco use by teens.
“Between 2017 and 2018, the use of vapor products increased 78% among high school students, and by 48% among middle school students,” Spiros said. “Nearly half of 12th graders reported using vapor products. After decades of smoking going down, suddenly the numbers have been spiking again. It is what can only be described as a public health crisis.”
Spiros said raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products aligns Wisconsin law with federal law.
“In December 2019, Congress passed and President Trump signed a law to increase the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21,” he said. “This made it all the more pressing that we pass Assembly Bill 422, since the federal law requires states to implement this law change or risk losing vital substance abuse and prevention grant funding to the tune of millions of dollars.”
The bill would penalize both licensed and non-licensed retailers who sell the products to those under the age of 21. It heads now to the Senate.
Seclusion and restrain
In another bipartisan vote, the Assembly passed a seclusion and restraint bill that supporters say makes common-sense changes to the state’s current law, including requiring schools to report annually to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction about how frequently those practices are occurring and requiring schools to provide a written incident report to parents. Current law only requires that parents be notified that the report exists.
According to the Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organization, in the 2013-14 school year, seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin public schools were used more than 20,000 times with nearly 80% of the incidents happening to students with disabilities.
The current law was a good first step in protecting students with disabilities, but changes were needed to the law to continue to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint, the coalition of more than 30 statewide disability organizations said.
The Assembly also approved a package of eight key bills designed to aid Wisconsin’s struggling dairy industry.
“Wisconsin lost more than 10% of our dairy farms in 2019, and the challenges of trade volatility, a labor shortage, and a sharp decline in milk consumption remain,” said John Umhoefer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which supported the measures. “We are grateful for the bipartisan leadership shown today in the Assembly to support dairy processing growth and make dairy farming more profitable.”
One bill would allocate up to $5 million in state investments to a new export initiative to help cheesemakers sell more dairy products abroad. Assembly passage was unanimous, the WCMA said.
“Exports are key to long-term growth in Wisconsin’s dairy industry, this proposal offers tremendous support to cheesemakers as they connect with international buyers,” Umhoefer said. “Legislators are setting an ambitious, shared goal to ‘double in a decade’ the value of our dairy exports, and with state support, we’re confident we’ll reach it.”
Another bill would invest $600,000 a year in the dairy processor grant program at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, with preference given to smaller dairy processors that make up to 50 million pounds of finished dairy products per year.
The Assembly also moved to create a refundable tax credit to offset property taxes farmers pay on farm buildings, and it voted to increase the limits that self-employed people, including farmers, can deduct for the cost of their health insurance on their income tax bills.
Finally, the Assembly voted to spend $1 million for certain agricultural extension positions at the University of Wisconsin System.
Not all milk and honey
While the GOP was singing the praises of the session’s accomplishments, some Democrats were not joining the chorus.
In particular, Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb), the ranking member on the Assembly Committee on Education, said the GOP had broken its promise to commit to two-thirds funding of education and had canceled $130 million in property tax relief.
Pope said Republicans refused to take up proposals offered by Evers that would have fulfilled the state’s education funding commitment, provided $80 million more in special education funding, and an additional $22 million in mental health funding, all to have been paid for by the state’s revenue surplus.
“Throughout the campaign cycle and legislative session, and by the recommendation of their Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, Republicans promised to restore Wisconsin’s two-thirds funding commitment instituted decades ago by a Republican governor,” Pope said. “With the adjournment of session today, the GOP officially broke that promise.”
Pope said the Legislature had an opportunity to take a meaningful step to invest in education and safety, but instead Republicans chose to score political points and to continue to obstruct Evers. Part of Evers’s plan would have put an additional $130 million in general school aids, Pope said, as well as provide $10 million more in aid for rural school districts.
“Their rejection of much-needed sparsity aid is confusing as Republicans represent a large majority of rural school districts,” she said. “They are denying their own constituents crucial funding that rural districts need to pay for higher transportation costs and enhancing educational programming.”
Additionally, Pope said, the increase in general school aids the GOP rejected would have provided property tax relief to thousands of Wisconsinites, the same citizens who have voted to raise their own taxes by billions over the last decade to keep their neighborhood schools operational.
“As elected officials, we must not be satisfied with the status quo, but strive to instigate positive change,” she said. “It is our duty to invest more into our state’s future — our kids and their educations.”
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.