As the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee was poised to strip hundreds of Governor Evers’ proposals from the next state budget today, folks from across the state crowded inside the Capitol in protest.
During today’s action, organized by Voces de la Frontera, roughly 200 activists crowded into a narrow hallway outside a committee room where the Joint Finance Committee — the legislative committee in charge of the budget — was scheduled to meet.
Shortly after they arrived, a capitol official emerged from the Finance Committee’s meeting room to inform protesters that the occupancy limit had already been reached. The demonstrators, many of whom were bussed in from Milwaukee and Racine, were denied entry.
They were protesting the Republican-controlled Finance Committee’s plans to shred hundreds of items from the governor’s proposal, and rebuild the state’s two-year spending plan from scratch.
Specifically, demonstrators were protesting against the removal of two items. One would have extended driver’s license eligibility to undocumented immigrants. The other would have provided college tuition exemptions for undocumented students.
Representative Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) outlined the need for the budget items in an address to the demonstrators.
“There are currently 14 states in the U.S. that offer driver’s licenses for all, because they know it’s important and that it impacts and improves public road safety. In-state tuition is important as well. We know that education is a way out of poverty and one of the best investments we can make,” Ortiz-Velez said.
But those are just two of the numerous provisions the Republicans trashed today — including proposals to legalize marijuana, expand Medicaid and roll back portions of Act Ten.
Fabi Maldonado, the political director of Voces De la Frontera, told WORT that the Finance Committee had purposefully excluded some communities during its hearing processes.
Over a two month stretch, the Finance Committee has held four public input sessions. Three of those were in person — in Whitewater, Rhinelander and Menominee.
One session was virtual and open to residents across the state. But registration for that meeting filled up minutes after opening, as residents and advocacy groups jockeyed for a chance to weigh in on the spending plan.
Said Maldonado: “They have gone around the state for the last few weeks in a sham way. They don’t go into the inner cities, where the vast majority of voters are located. They held meetings in places where a lot of people could not reach, where working class people could not reach. Then they did a virtual thing that got filled up in twenty minutes. So we’re here today to make it loud and clear to them that we’re not happy with what they’re doing. They’re going to essentially gut 381 line items from the budget, and we’re here to say that is not okay.”
In a press briefing prior to the Finance Committee’s meeting, Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), a member of the committee’s Democratic minority, echoed many of the protester’s points.
“What we’re about to see here in the next hour or so is politically very selfish. It will intentionally harm people of low income, and people who are not properly documented,” Erpenbach told reporters. “I would hope that we’re not going to go down the road we’re ready to go down. But if we do, I have no problem with people showing up at the capitol to fend for themselves. It’s just a shame they have to do it.”
The Republicans on the Finance Committee have always been clear about their intentions to shred the governor’s budget. The committee’s co-chairs previously referred to it as a “Liberal’s Dream.”
Luis Velasquez, a Reverend in the United Methodist Church and a Madison organizer for Voces de la Frontera, said he was holding out hope for a miracle — a miracle that Republicans may have a last minute change of heart.
“As a person of faith I believe in miracles,” Velasquez said. “I believe that people are inherently good and we have that ability to be good, and it’s never too late to turn back. As a person of faith, that’s why I’m here. Just appealing to people’s compassion.”
Velasquez’s miracle never came, and Finance Committee members voted twelve to four, along party lines, to tank the governor’s budget.
Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), the Committee’s co-chair, described the move as bringing the budget “back to basics.”
“By the end of the day today, we will be at a point where the budget we’ll be working on will be the same as what Governor Evers signed two years ago and what this committee approved two years ago. We’re focusing on having a reasonable, responsible state budget,” Marklein said.
Some budget items — including those today’s protests were in support of — could be restored to the final spending plan. But, they’d need Republican backing to make the cut.
In a press release issued shortly after the decision, Governor Evers urged residents to reach out directly to lawmakers and weigh in on the next steps in the budgeting process.
Also today, the Finance Committee voted unanimously to expand the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center on Madison’s north side. According to committee members, the move will hasten the closure of the Lincoln Hills youth prison in northern Wisconsin.
The Joint Finance Committee will spend the next several weeks hashing out the state’s budget. According to the Associated Press, the biennial spending plan will likely be before the full legislature later this summer.
Clearly these legislators need to hear directly from the same folks I’ve been listening to these past seven months, and that’s why I’m calling on Wisconsinites in every corner of the state today to contact their legislators. It’s time to set politics aside and put people first.
— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) May 6, 2021
(All Photos/Videos by Jonah Chester)