Transportation Tops Agenda as New Legislative Session Begins in Wisconsin

Jan 3, 2017

The Wisconsin Legislature gets back into action on Tuesday. All 99 members of the state Assembly will be sworn-in for another two years, while half the state Senate will take the oath of office for new, four-year terms.

Republicans secured even larger majorities in the November elections. The GOP picked up one more seat in the Assembly, increasing their margin 64 to 35, the largest Republican majority in 60 years. They’ve also taken a 20-13 lead in the state Senate, after knocking off Democrat Julie Lassa of Stevens Point.  

Some of the major issues the Legislature will deal with right away, include the state budget and in particular, how to plug a $1 billion hole in the transportation department. It’s expected to be one of the most contentious problems of the session. Governor Walker proposes a mix of borrowing and delaying road projects in order to fix the deficit, while Republican leaders in the Assembly have other ideas. Those include tax and fee increases.

Another issue expected to get attention in the budget is education. Gov. Walker is promising a “sizeable” increase in funding for K-12 public schools and raising state imposed limits on school district spending.

At the university level, Walker is vowing an increase in funding for the UW System after cutting $250 million in the last budget. He’s indicated he wants to tie funding to performance, such as enrollment and graduation rates. And, there could be a struggle over tuition, as UW is pushing for an increase after four years of freezes.

Other hot button issues that could come up later in the year include the Department of Natural Resources and how it is managed. The DNR has proposed its own reorganization, which Gov. Walker was going to include in his budget. But now, a separate bill has surfaced, that would break up the DNR into five different agencies. Environmental groups are opposed to the idea, but the governor recently said it’s worth exploring.

Also, a Republican lawmaker plans to revive a battle over whether transgender people may use certain restrooms. His new proposal would apply to people of all ages, barring them from using public restrooms across the state that don’t conform to the gender of their birth.

Democrats will likely weigh in on some of these proposals from Republicans, but they also have an agenda of their own. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca says the biggest issues Democrats will push, include a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave.

He says Democrats are still reeling from the drubbing they received across the board in the November elections. He promises Democrats will be more focused in the new session, and will hold more hearings in rural areas to connect with voters.