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Wisconsin's governor wields his special power to boost school funding for 400 years

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

With the stroke of his pen, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers did something pretty wild this week. He increased funding for Wisconsin public schools for the next 400 years. And he did that using a superpower that governors have in no other state but Wisconsin. We have got Wisconsin Public Radio's education reporter Corrinne Hess with us to explain this. Hey, Corrinne.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: Hey.

ESTRIN: Let's just set the scene here. I understand that school funding has been a very contentious partisan issue in Wisconsin. So how did the governor pull this off?

HESS: So you may have heard about line-item vetoes, but Wisconsin governors have a partial veto, which is much stronger. Republicans did increase school funding by $325 per student for two years. But in the last budget, schools got zero. So this year, Wisconsin had a $7 billion surplus. And our governor, Evers, wanted to make sure schools are going to be taken care of every year - not just the years that the state has extra money. So instead of the budget saying that the increase in school funding will end in 2024-25, Evers slashed some numbers and a hyphen, making the end date 2425. So instead of two years, it ends in 402 years.

ESTRIN: Wow.

HESS: Here's the governor explaining his rationale.

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TONY EVERS: We will still have a lot of work to do and ensure that state investments can keep up with inflation. So I have also used my broad veto authority to provide school districts with predictable long-term increases for the foreseeable future.

HESS: Wisconsin's per-pupil spending is about 6% lower than the national average. So with this new budget, the state's per-pupil spending will go up $325.

ESTRIN: OK, wait. Let me just understand how he did this. The budget said 2024-hyphen-25. What did he cross out? How did he do that?

HESS: Right. So he crossed out the 20 and the dash, making the end date 2425 (laughter).

ESTRIN: OK. Wow. Very creative. Now, I understand this kind of budget tactic has been used before.

HESS: Yes, it has, by Republican governors.

ESTRIN: Aha.

HESS: Our former Republican governor, Scott Walker, used his veto power in 2017, and he extended a deadline for a thousand years. And our former Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, he used to do what was called the Vanna White veto. So she's a game show host who flipped letters around. Governor Thompson would flip numbers around.

ESTRIN: OK, the old "Wheel Of Fortune" trick. Nice. Well, what has been the reaction so far to Governor Evers' use of this creative partial veto?

HESS: Our state school superintendent, Jill Underly, says she's grateful, but she would like more money to fund things like mental health, school nutrition and special education. And I think school districts are feeling a bit of relief, but there's also a lot of uncertainty for school districts during budget time.

ESTRIN: OK. But bottom line, do you think the public schools actually will have increased budgets for the next 402 years?

HESS: Well, a lot of people are skeptical. There's a real possibility that Republicans may file a lawsuit. And then there's also our legislature. Republicans are very close to having a veto-proof majority. So if it gets to that point, this provision could be overturned later.

ESTRIN: All right. That's Wisconsin Public Radio's Corrinne Hess. Thanks for joining us.

HESS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrinne Hess