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Rep. Steffen holds budget listening session in Ashwaubenon

By Kevin Boneske
Staff Writer

ASHWAUBENON – Around a dozen members of the public were on hand at the village hall midday Monday, March 18, when 4th District State Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard) held a listening session for an hour on the 2019-21 state budget.

With Democratic Gov. Tony Evers having presented his first biennial budget proposal to the state legislature, which still has Republican majorities in both houses after last fall’s elections, Steffen said he expects there will be some opportunities for the legislators and the governor to work together.

“However, there probably has to be some realistic parameters set on both sides as to where each side can go – the sides being the legislature controlled by Republicans and the East Wing (of the Capitol) obviously by Democrat Evers,” Steffen said. “Where I think the common ground is going to be, I think there will be some opportunity for increased spending for education, some water quality initiatives – those I think are going to receive some priorities.”

Others areas Steffen said he expects could receive support from both the governor and legislature include additional funding for special education, a middle-class tax cut, protections for medical coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and expanded revenue for road infrastructure.

“Those, I think, are some core elements that we can build a compromise around,” he said. “There’s going to be some other elements, especially if they’re very much a public policy-only initiative, that are not going to fit in the next budget.”

Steffen said he is against “abusing the budget as a vehicle for policy.”

“I think those should be stand-alone bills,” he said.

Steffen said items such as whether to provide driver’s licenses for non-U.S. citizens and redistricting maps should be debated, but are public policy items that don’t have a fiscal priority and shouldn’t be in the budget.

“Right now we need to deal with issues that are before the state as it relates to its balance sheet,” he said. “There’s a great opportunity for some compromise on some things, and I’m hopeful that both parties are willing to that.”

Terry Lee, the Democratic candidate who lost his bid last fall to unseat Steffen, got into an argument with Steffen when asking about whether a non-partisan commission instead of elected officials should handle redistricting in the state.

“I firmly believe there is no such thing as taking the politics out of politics,” Steffen said. “When you want to create a non-partisan group to do it, who is that non-partisan group going to be and how soon do they become tainted? Right now we have non-partisan judges, non-partisan. Does anyone think that there aren’t specific sides aligning in our State Supreme Court races? We have a non-partisan mayoral race down the street in Green Bay, non-partisan. Does anyone think that that’s a non-partisan race occurring for that position?”

When asked about a provision placed in the budget to end what’s known as the dark store loophole, in which commercial retailers and manufacturers can now challenge the assessed value of their properties by claiming they are worth the same or close to the lower assessed value of similar but empty buildings, Steffen said he doesn’t think the budget is the place for it, though he is “100 percent supportive of closing that loophole.”

After a bill to end the loophole never came up for a vote in the last session of the state legislature, Steffen said he believes legislation to close the loophole will pass.

Under the loophole, companies which have challenged their assessments in court and won are able to receive a property tax refund with the affected municipalities having to make up the difference with that lost revenue, such as with homeowners having to pay more of the tax burden.

“It’s not a tax increase, it’s a tax shift,” Steffen said. “Every municipality has a levy limit, so it’s not increasing the taxes. It’s just pushing it from one payer to another.”

When asked about a budget provision to raise the state gasoline tax by 8 cents per gallon, Steffen said he finds that proposal to be “reasonable” for raising revenue for roads.

“I don’t think there’s an easier way around it,” he said. “The other alternatives that are being thrown out – whether it be tolling or vehicle miles traveled – those are other mechanisms, but it’s all about generating additional revenue. We already have a very effective method for collecting revenue for roads, and that’s the gas tax.”

Ashwaubenon School District Business Director Keith Lucius asked Steffen about state funding for education and when the next state budget will be approved so that school districts will know how much funding they can expect to receive.

“It’s very challenging when we don’t know what the state budget is going to bring,” Lucius said.

Steffen said he favors “more clarity and certainty for school districts when it relates to these funding elements” and supports the efforts of the state Blue Ribbon Commission on education to address some of that.

“You have a lot of fixed costs, you have a lot of long-term costs, employees – those are things you need to have,” he said. “When you have to wait for the legislature every two years to know how to structure these costs, it’s not appropriate, in my mind.”

Though Steffen said he hopes the state budget will be passed by the target date of July 1, the “worst-case scenario” for its passage would be in September.

When asked about a comment by Evers wanting to curtail expansion of school choice in the state, Steffen said he’s heard from families about having an alternate option for educating their children.

“I want the money to follow the child and whatever mechanism works best for that child to receive the best education possible,” Steffen said. “So, I don’t agree with the governor in terms of reducing that opportunity for our students.”

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