Republicans, Democrats disagree on Gov. Evers' workforce plans in proposed 'People's Budget'

MADISON — 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 was dissecting 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.

Public hearings on Evers' budget begin Friday in Janesville. The next public hearing is Wednesday in Oak Creek, followed by April 15 in River Falls and April 24 in Green Bay.

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.