Wisconsin special needs voucher program to grow

MADISON, Wis. — Attendance in a program that extends taxpayer funded vouchers to students with disabilities could be doubled under a Republican proposal approved Wednesday, one of the last changes being made to the $76 billion Wisconsin state budget before it's sent to the full Legislature for passage.

The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee approved the measure that would expand the special needs voucher program, which began in the 2016 school year. The committee made the change as it pushed to wrap up its work on the two-year spending plan later Wednesday or early Thursday.

The budget could pass the Assembly and Senate as early as next week — swift action that comes after a two-month impasse that left Wisconsin as one of only two states without a budget despite a July 1 deadline to have one. Spending has continued at its pre-deadline levels, which has reduced pressure on the Republicans who control the Legislature to act quickly.

Also on Wednesday, the committee voted to reduce a tax on property paid by businesses other than manufacturers by more than $74 million a year, a move championed by the state's business community. The committee planned to reject Gov. Scott Walker's call to reduce personal income taxes on average of $44 per filer, as well as his proposal to institute a sales tax holiday for specified back to school purchases. It also planned to reject a cap on a popular tax credit used to pay for rehabilitation of historic property.

Democrats opposed expansion of the special needs voucher program, but didn't have the votes needed to prevail. The changes were approved on a party-line 12-4 vote.

"The voucher lobby continues to get their way in this Capitol," said Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland, of Stevens Point. "This is just one more step in giving public money to private schools that are less accountable."

Supporters of the program say the vouchers help provide more options for disabled students and their families. But opponents, including Democrats and disability rights advocates, say the program diverts money to private voucher schools and students there won't receive the same legal protections they are guaranteed in public schools.

Last school year there were just over 200 students in the program, which cost their home public school districts $2.4 million. Students in the program this year, its second, have not yet been counted.

State aid follows the student to the private school to pay for their $12,000 voucher. Under changes before the committee, various program requirements would be softened to result in an estimated 250 additional students qualifying at a cost of $3.1 million more per-year to public schools. But Democrats worried that because there's no cap on what students could receive, based on their needs, the true cost is not known.

"We think it's an investment that's worth it," committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren said. "If you're the parent of that child, there's no price you can put on getting the education that they deserve."

Walker, a Republican facing re-election next year, has been working with GOP leaders in the Senate and Assembly to reach a budget deal that he can quickly sign. The Legislature is expected to make few changes to what the Joint Finance Committee approves, and Walker also has broad veto powers to shape the proposal.

Overall, the budget would increase funding for public schools and higher education, positives that Walker and legislative Republicans are certain to tout on the campaign trail next year. However, they were unable to reach a long-term funding solution for roads, opting instead to borrow about $400 million and to delay construction projects to get by for another two years.

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the budget committee, said it would end with a roughly $200 million balance — more than double the $82.7 million Walker had.