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GOP State Building Commission members reject Evers’ $3.8B capital budget

Individual state building projects could still be approved by Republican lawmakers during budget state debate

The sun shines on the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Republicans on Wisconsin’s State Building Commission have rejected every recommendation in Gov. Tony Ever’s $3.8 billion capital budget request, which includes nearly $2 billion for University of Wisconsin System projects.

During a meeting Thursday, the eight-members of the bipartisan commission, including the governor himself, deadlocked on Evers’ requests, with Democrats voting in favor of each recommendation and Republicans voting against them.

This isn’t necessarily the end of the line for the billions in requests for new buildings, upgrades and maintenance projects. But it means GOP lawmakers are likely to follow a similar path taken during the last two state budget cycles and approve a pared down list of requests later this year.

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Evers’ $3.8 billion capital budget request is the largest in at least a decade, but calls for borrowing far less to fund the projects than in recent years. Instead, the governor suggests paying for them with a portion of Wisconsin’s projected $7.1 billion budget surplus.

Among Evers’ recommendations is nearly $1.8 billion for UW System building projects including a $347 million replacement of UW-Madison’s Engineering Building and $231 million for a new UW-Eau Claire science building.

Beyond the UW System, Evers’ capital budget recommends improvements for government operations like $41 million worth of fiber and cable upgrades at the Wisconsin Capitol building, $141 million for upgrades to the government building in downtown Madison known as “GEF 1” and $160 million for a new Wisconsin History Museum in the city.

The only discussion during the half hour meeting came during the commission’s consideration of the capital requests for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which included $25 million for a new health services unit at the Green Bay Correctional Institution.

State Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, asked Evers if his administration will develop a strategic plan for future use of the state’s aging prisons, like the one in Green Bay.

“The concern has been, over the last couple of biennium, if we should be putting more money into the Green Bay facility,” Ballweg said.

Evers said he assumes the DOC will do that, but the first step is developing a replacement for the state’s youth prison, Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake.

State Sen. André Jacque, R-DePere, also questioned spending “potentially $200 million or more” to renovate the Green Bay prison.

“There’s a significant concern, certainly with my colleagues in that immediate district and surrounding, that the proposed health services unit is going to be continuing to perpetuate use of that facility,” Jacque said. “Again, at a point where it is already beyond capacity and creating a health issue for our state employees as well as the inmates at that facility.”

The recommendations for DOC building projects failed on a 4-4 vote.

Despite the deadlock, there was laughter in the room when State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, introduced Evers’ recommendation to authorize $12.5 million in renovations for the Wisconsin State Fair Park’s Cream Puff Pavilion.

“Let’s vote for cream puffs,” Wirch said.

There were votes for cream puffs, but not enough for the project to be approved.

In an emailed statement, State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, applauded Republican members of the building commission for rejecting Evers’ proposals.

“Legislative Republicans will continue to work to provide cost-savings for taxpayers by holding the Evers administration to account on excess spending,” LeMahieu said.

Evers’ last two capital budget requests were also rejected by GOP commission members. But eventually, many of those requests were approved. In 2019, Evers proposed a $2.5 billion capital budget, lawmakers approved $1.7 billion. In 2021, Evers proposed a $2.4 billion capital budget and the commission approved about $1.5 billion.