Republicans On Building Commission Reject Evers’ $2.4B Capital Budget

Republicans on Wisconsin’s State Building Commission voted Wednesday to reject every building project in Gov. Tony Evers’ capital budget, punting debate on the $2.4 billion proposal until later this year.

While the move may jeopardize dozens of the governor’s proposals, it’s too soon to say which ones. Republicans on the Building Commission also rejected the governor’s entire $2.5 billion capital budget two years ago, but GOP lawmakers eventually approved a $1.7 billion capital budget months later.

The commission includes members appointed by the Legislature, as well as the governor himself and a citizen member chosen by the governor.

Evers’ latest capital budget includes $1 billion worth of projects at the University of Wisconsin System, in addition to funding for a new state office building in Milwaukee and facilities to treat juvenile offenders once the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison is closed.

It’s the second straight capital budget when Evers has proposed $1 billion for the UW. Projects include $117 million on a new Science and Technology Innovation Center at UW-River Falls, $100 million on a new engineering building on the UW-Madison campus, $96 million to replace Albertson Hall at the UW-Stevens Point, $94 million on the Cofrin Technology and Education Center at the UW-Green Bay and $93 million on the Prairie Springs Science Center at the UW-La Crosse.

Two years ago, Republicans eventually supported most of the governor’s UW building plan, but there’s no guarantee they will this year, and Wednesday’s votes left the public guessing.

“I personally would appreciate some honest debate on these issues,” said Sen. Janice Ringhand, D-Evansville.

Republicans who spoke at the Building Commission meeting Wednesday said they weren’t comfortable voting on the projects until they knew more about how the rest of the state budget would unfold, including how the state would spend about $3.2 billion from the latest federal COVID-19 relief bill.

“I’m just simply not comfortable with the amount of money that the capital budget spends,” said Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander. “I’m also not sure what the Legislature is comfortable with in terms of bonding levels.”

Swearingen also took issue with the governor’s proposals for new state office buildings. Evers’ capital budget would spend about $164 million on a new state office building in Milwaukee as well as another $4 million on planning for a new office building in Madison to replace the “GEF 1” building that currently houses the state Department of Workforce Development.

“You’re asking us to essentially build new buildings when government is not really at work,” Swearingen said.

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In the case of the Milwaukee office building, Naomi De Mers, an administrator with Evers’ Department of Administration told the commission that waiting to build these projects until later would carry a cost because interest rates right now are historically low.

“If we defer it again, it’s just going to cost more in the next budget,” De Mers said.

In many cases, Evers’ capital budget would replace aging buildings rather than pay to continue fixing them. For example, the Madison office building Evers wants to study replacing has electrical and plumbing systems that need critical maintenance according to the governor’s office. It also has no fire sprinklers.

The existing UW-Madison engineering building that the capital budget would replace was built in 1938. According to the governor’s office, it lacks the space or facilities to address the rising demand for engineering degrees.

Evers’ also proposed spending about $66 million to expand the juvenile treatment center at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison and another $46 million on a Milwaukee County juvenile corrections facility. Both would be among the facilities that replace the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, the state’s troubled youth prison that has been slated for closure for years.

“If this isn’t done, mark my words, our ability to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake to the kids that are up there and get them to a better place will not happen any time in the near future,” Evers said at Wednesday’s meeting. “This is another linchpin.”

Evers also took Republicans to task for blocking his budget rather than negotiating.

“This is one of the few opportunities for the executive branch and the legislative branch to meet and make decisions collaboratively,” Evers said. “We essentially are choosing not to do that.”

Because the building commission is split evenly between four Democratic and four Republican members, each building project failed on a deadlocked vote.

That sends the plan to the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, where Republicans hold a 12-4 majority and plan to rewrite major pillars of the governor’s budget.

Two years ago, GOP lawmakers began voting on the governor’s budget in early May and voted on his capital budget in early June. Evers signed the budget in early July.