MADISON, Wisconsin — The Legislature's finance committee began on Monday a months-long push to revise Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal for the next two fiscal years, grilling a handful of state officials on cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, plans for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena and the manning of prison towers.
Members spent more than two hours questioning former Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch, who helped develop the budget as Walker's top aide until he began a new job on Monday as a state utilities regulator. Democrats criticized him over a plan to cut the UW System by $300 million while continuing a tuition freeze. The cut has been one of the hottest issues to come out of Walker's budget.
"At what point do we hold tuition down so much the quality is gone just to make it quote-unquote affordable?" Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton said.
Huebsch downplayed the cuts, saying they amount to 2.5 percent of the system's budget. The budget also would free the system from state oversight, giving the system the ability to govern itself more efficiently.
"We can turn loose innovative thoughts of individuals within those schools," Huebsch said.
Republicans on the panel questioned Huebsch on the need to borrow $220 million backed by income taxes on Bucks players and visiting players to help fund a new Bucks arena. The team's new owners, Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, have committed $150 million toward a new arena; former Bucks owner Herb Kohl has promised to chip in another $100 million.
The committee's co-chairman, Rep. John. Nygren, R-Marinette, told reporters before the committee convened that he'd like to see the Bucks owners contribute more. He asked Huebsch what would happen if the state doesn't give the Bucks any money. Huebsch said the team likely would leave Milwaukee in 2017 — the NBA has given the Bucks until then to have a new arena lined up — costing the state about $7 million in annual tax revenue.
Members questioned Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall about whether Walker's proposal to save $6 million by leaving prison towers unmanned during third shifts would put communities in danger. Wall said the idea isn't new — Corrections has proposed the notion to three governors before Walker, he said — and insisted inmates all are accounted for in their cells by the time third shift begins and roving patrols and sensors can do a better job detecting escape attempts than human eyes in the towers. Wall said he's more worried about drones dropping weapons into the prisons for inmates than prisoners going over the walls.
Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, questioned why Wall needs $84 million in overtime salary that the budget would give the agency, saying he's worried staffers will burn out. Wall said the agency is dealing with a wave of retirements and inter-agency transfers. He said the agency is working to recruit new employees.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, took his turn in front of the committee as well, asking lawmakers to give the state Justice Department five more staffers to handle officer-involved death investigations.
Legislators passed a law last year that requires an outside agency to lead investigations into officer-involved deaths. Schimel told the committee he's concerned more agencies will turn to DOJ to probe officer-involved use-of-force as well as deaths. He told reporters after the hearing the DOJ has handled six death investigations and three injury investigations since the law took effect.
Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, asked why the DOJ agrees to help locals in use-of-force probes when the law said agencies are required to use outsiders only in deaths.
Schimel responded that police agencies are sensitive about maintaining public confidence in their departments especially after high-profile police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and in Milwaukee over the last year and want an agency with expertise to step in.
"We are not accustomed to saying 'no' to local law enforcement when they ask for your help," Schimel said. "That's part of why we exist."
The committee was expected to continue questioning other state agencies on Tuesday and Wednesday. UW System officials were slated to appear on Tuesday.
The panel then plans to hold public hearings on the budget outside Madison. They'll then return to the Capitol to begin revising the budget line-by-line. That process almost will stretch into the spring.
When that's done the committee will forward the budget to the state Assembly and state Senate for votes. The spending document will then go back to Walker, who can use his powerful partial veto to restore the document to his liking.