Milwaukee bankruptcy avoidance plan up for approval in Wisconsin Legislature

By SCOTT BAUER Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A plan to prevent Milwaukee from going bankrupt, struck between Republican lawmakers, leaders in the heavily Democratic city and Gov. Tony Evers, was expected to win bipartisan approval Wednesday in the Wisconsin Legislature.

The measure is part of a larger deal reached with the Democratic governor and Republicans who control the Legislature that also includes spending more than $1 billion more on K-12 schools. Once approved by the Legislature, the bills would head to Evers, who is expected to sign them into law.

Both the Milwaukee plan and the corresponding school funding proposal have their detractors, despite the bipartisan deal.

Conservatives deride the Milwaukee bill as a bailout for the state’s largest and most Democratic city and say local sales tax increases should need voter approval. The state schoolteachers union doesn’t like increasing voucher payments to private schools that are a part of the education funding plan and called on Evers to veto it.

“I think we can do better,” Rep. Evan Goyke said Tuesday. He is one of several Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to vote against the education spending plan. The Milwaukee funding bill is expected to have broader bipartisan support.

Evers and Republicans have praised the deals as transformational wins for Milwaukee and local governors, as well as the state’s schools, while conceding that there are elements they oppose.

Evers, a former state superintendent, has long opposed expanding the state’s private school voucher system, which allows public school students to attend private schools for free. Under the deal, payments that private schools receive to accept public school students would increase. That would lower costs to allow schools to expand the number of non-voucher students they accept.

Advocates for voucher schools say the additional funding will help slow the closure of cash-strapped voucher schools. More than 40% of private schools that received vouchers have closed since the program began in Milwaukee in 1990. That was the first voucher program in the country. It expanded statewide in Wisconsin in 2013, but there are enrollment caps that would not grow under the deal.

The plan also calls for spending $50 million more on reading and literacy programs in schools, but what exactly those programs are aren’t detailed. Republicans are pushing a plan they negotiated with the Evers administration to change the way most public schools teach children to read. It would require teaching reading through a phonics-based approach that focuses on learning to sound out letters and phrases.

The bill will also increase a reimbursement for special education costs to cover a third of districts’ expenses and dedicate $30 million to address mental health in schools, both priorities for Evers and Democrats.

The long-sought-after plan sending more money to all of Wisconsin’s towns, villages, cities and counties became a top priority in the Legislature this year amid warnings of impending financial doom in Milwaukee. Leaders there warned of dire consequences and catastrophic budget cuts as the city faces bankruptcy by 2025.

Milwaukee is struggling with an underfunded pension system and not enough money to maintain essential police, fire and emergency services.

The deal resolved the largest sticking point over who could determine whether Milwaukee city and county can raise the local sales tax to pay for pension costs and emergency services. Under the bill, that power rests with the Milwaukee County Board and the Milwaukee Common Council. Some Republicans wanted to require voter approval before taxes could be raised.

Roughly $1.6 billion in aid to local governments — known as shared revenue — would be paid for by tapping 20% of the state’s 5-cent sales tax. Aid would then grow along with sales tax revenue.

Local leaders had been pushing for the change, hoping that getting their funding from the sales tax would negate the need to constantly be lobbying the Legislature for increases.

Shared revenue to local governments has remained nearly unchanged for almost 30 years and was cut in 2004, 2010 and 2012.