Wisconsin’s Governor Raises School Funding for the Next 400 Years

It took only a few snips of creative editing for Gov. Tony Evers of Wisconsin to push through a long-term boost to public education funding.

And by long term, we mean long term.

As in, for the next 400 years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Evers, a Democratic former teacher and state superintendent, took advantage of a quirky, Wisconsin rule that has long given governors a partial veto, allowing them to amend laws with some editing trickery.

Governor Evers raised the amount that school districts could generate through property taxes by an additional $325 per student each year. In the original budget, the increase was allowed through the 2024-25 school year.

But with the slash of a hyphen and the snip of a “20,” Mr. Evers changed 2024-25 to the year 2425.

State Republicans, who have made an art of blocking Governor Evers’s agenda, quickly condemned the veto, which also rejected a Republican tax cut plan that included relief for top-income brackets.

“Legislative Republicans worked tirelessly over the last few months to block Governor Evers’s liberal tax and spending agenda,” Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the State Assembly, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, because of his powerful veto authority, he reinstated some of it today.”

Mr. Evers — who won his first term in 2018 in part by arguing that the incumbent, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, had not spent enough on schools — announced the changes without a hint of irony.

The new budget “ensures school districts have a level of budgeting certainty that they have not experienced” since cuts made after the Great Recession, his office said in a news release, adding that the revenue adjustments would continue “effectively in perpetuity.”

Over time, Wisconsin voters have whittled away at the state’s unusual veto authority. In 1990, voters took away the “Vanna White veto,” which had allowed governors to strike individual letters in words to create new words. In 2008, voters rejected the “Frankenstein veto,” which had involved combining parts of two or more sentences to create a new sentence.

Because Mr. Evers’s veto eliminated only entire words and digits, without combining two or more sentences to create a new sentence, it appeared to be legal, said Rick Champagne, director of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan agency that provides research and legal advice to state lawmakers.

“Governor Evers’s veto does adhere to the constitutional requirements for a partial veto,” he said in an email.

The law could be challenged or appealed.

In 2017, Mr. Walker, the former governor, executed what came to be known as the “thousand year veto” by striking the figures “1” and “2” from the date “Dec. 31, 2018,” — changing the date to “December 3018.” The edit, to a law involving school districts and energy efficiency projects, was challenged in court, but upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on the grounds that the challenge was not brought in a timely manner.

“We have no case law on the legality of a partial veto that would affect law spanning centuries,” Mr. Champagne said.

Nationally, Wisconsin sits in the middle of the road when it comes to public-school funding. Adjusting for local costs, Wisconsin spent about $15,000 per student in the 2019-20 school year, in line with the national average, according to the Education Law Center.

The new budget does not automatically increase the state’s spending each year. Rather, it allows school districts to raise their total revenue amount — which comes from a combination of state aid and property taxes — by $325 per student every year, the largest increase to the revenue limit in Wisconsin in more than a decade. If the Legislature does not increase state aid in future years, school districts would have the authority to raise property taxes.

Predictably, there was little agreement about whether this was a good thing.

Tyler August, a Republican and majority leader of the State Assembly, called the governor’s move an “irresponsible veto that would blow the roof off of property taxes,” adding, “Taxpayers need to remember this when getting their tax bills this December.”

But Dan Rossmiller, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the change, while “certainly appreciated,” may not be enough to keep up with the rate of inflation for some districts.

“I wish the amount would have been higher,” he told the news outlet.

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