Republicans reject Gov. Tony Evers' $3.8 billion plan for building projects, but it's not over yet. Here's what happens next.

Among the projects Gov. Evers proposed is $182.5 million for UW-La Crosse to finish its Prairie Springs Science Center.
Among the projects Gov. Evers proposed is $182.5 million for UW-La Crosse to finish its Prairie Springs Science Center.

The State Building Commission on Thursday failed to recommend any of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ $3.8 billion in proposed state building projects, with Republicans voting them down one by one.

The series of deadlocked votes along party lines doesn’t necessarily doom the projects but rather kicks them over to the Legislature's budget-writing committee, which is controlled by Republicans. The committee later this year will craft its own list of statewide building renovations, upgrades and expansions to fund in the next two-year state budget.

Evers said in a statement that Republicans have shown they would "simply rather play politics than have a meaningful discussion about how these projects would serve the needs of the folks they represent."

Is this approach common?

Republicans have taken the vote-down-every-project approach in the past two state budgets but never before Evers took office. Historically, the Building Commission vets and approves projects it deems worthy of funding in a collaborative manner. But since 2019, the four GOP lawmakers on the eight-member Building Commission have declined to approve any part of Evers’ plans, first requesting no recommendation be made and later voting down each of the projects.

"It’s a Republican power grab," Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Somers, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Thursday's meeting. "Look, we have a lot of worthwhile projects out there, and we have a lot of surplus money. Republicans say this (surplus) is only one-time money. Well, guess what? These projects are (built with) one-time money. Now’s the time to fix our infrastructure when we have a state surplus."

Unlike Evers' previous budget requests that relied heavily on borrowing to pay for the brick-and-mortar building projects, the governor suggested paying for about half of the projects with cash from the state's more than $7 billion budget surplus.

What building projects did Evers propose to fund?

Evers' plan calls for a renovation of the Cream Puff Pavilion at State Fair Park, more money for the new Wisconsin History Museum and several juvenile corrections facilities across the state, including one in Milwaukee County.

Nearly half of the money in Evers' plan would be spent on University of Wisconsin System campuses. The $1.8 billion would help fund a new engineering building at UW-Madison, expansion and renovation of two dorms at UW-Oshkosh and completion of a science center at UW-La Crosse.

Why did Republicans vote the projects down?

Evers' nearly $4 billion plan worried Republicans. Rep. Rob Swearingen, of Rhinelander, called the overall price tag "reckless spending" and noted the amount is nearly double what the governor asked for in the previous state budget.

"Certainly, there’s a lot that will be taken care of this July, but the state doesn't have the resources for all of it," he said.

Republicans would likely approve of a plan that's half or less than half of what Evers has called for, Swearingen said. That still leaves "a lot of room left for a lot of projects."

Swearingen said he supports funding for UW-Madison's new engineering building and UW-Eau Claire's science building, calling them "musts." He also likes a $285 million project for UW-Madison to demolish and replace the Camp Randall Sports Center with a new indoor practice field. The project is funded with athletic program revenue, not tax dollars.

Other Republicans on the Building Commission — Sen. Joan Ballweg of Markesan, Sen. André Jacque of De Pere and Rep. Robert Wittke of Racine — declined interview requests. Wittke said in a statement that sending the unrecommended projects on to the budget-writing committee "afford us a deeper dive into each recommendation.”

What's next?

Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, said the state has a process to give projects the green light in March as opposed to later this spring. She said projects receiving approval on the typical timeline provides a sense of surety to the institutions and donors involved.

"Now everything is up in the air again so they have to continue advocating in the Capitol for their projects," she said. "This is not the norm."

Contact Kelly Meyerhofer at Follow her on Twitter at @KellyMeyerhofer.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Republicans reject Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' capital budget plan