Wisconsin Republicans on Thursday unveiled an alternative way to pay for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed income tax cut while also moving quickly to approve a state-level health insurance guarantee for people with pre-existing conditions.
The two issues are early tests for Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature as they jockey for position and attempt to get the upper hand early in the governor’s first term. State government is under divided control for the first time in more than a decade.
The aggressive moves force Evers to either accept the plans under GOP terms or reject a chance to reach early, bipartisan accords on a couple of his campaign promises.
Republican Speaker Robin Vos cast the $340 million income tax cut plan unveiled at simultaneous news conferences across the state as a “fantastic chance” for Evers to deliver, with GOP support, on one of his main campaign pledges.
Vos said at a Capitol news conference that “we’ll see how serious” Evers is about wanting to work together to cut taxes. Evers’ spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
The problem for Evers is that Republicans want to pay for the tax cut by tapping the state’s roughly $588 million budget surplus. That would take money off the table that could be used to pay for any number of Evers’ other priorities, including increased funding for K-12 schools.
To pay for his proposal, Evers wants to cap tax breaks given out under the Manufacturing and Agriculture Credit program. But that’s a nonstarter for Republicans, who enacted the program under former GOP Gov. Scott Walker.
Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, said it didn’t make sense to “jeopardize what has brought us to this point of prosperity by undoing a tax cut.”
Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald signaled general support for the GOP income tax cut idea. The proposal would increase the standard deduction and target individuals earning less than $100,000 a year and families making less than $150,000. The median family filing jointly would see a $310 reduction in their taxes, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Republicans said they hoped to introduce the plan next week with the intention of it taking effect in 2020.
Meanwhile, Republicans were also moving ahead quickly with a bill that would provide a state-level guarantee of health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The Assembly Health Committee planned to vote on advancing the measure Thursday, two days after a public hearing, which would set up a vote on passage Tuesday.
Vos said he wanted to approve the bill on the first day lawmakers were in session. That evening, Evers is delivering his first State of the State speech. By introducing the tax cut proposal now, Evers could announce his support in his State of the State speech, Vos said.
Evers campaigned on protecting pre-existing condition coverage while expanding health care access and affordability. But earlier this week he signaled his opposition to the Republican bill, saying he will only sign a proposal that would guarantee protections as well or better than the Affordable Care Act already does. The Republican proposal’s protections would be narrower than the existing federal ones.
Supporters of the GOP proposal argue that there’s no reason to oppose putting in place state protections, which would only take effect if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But opponents say it wouldn’t work as planned unless other elements of the federal law, including those designed to keep down costs, are also in place.
While the battle over those two issues continues, Evers and Republican leaders can’t even agree on a time to meet to talk.
Evers tweeted Wednesday that he had invited Republican leaders to meet on Friday. Vos and Fitzgerald responded with a letter they made public saying they couldn’t meet then, but they could on Thursday afternoon.
Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff responded by saying “we’re going to find a time that works for the governor.”
Both Evers and Republican leaders have said they want to find common ground and Evers met privately with GOP lawmakers on Tuesday, but the public negotiating for something as seemingly routine as a meeting time is highly unusual and suggests they have yet to establish a working relationship.