GOP Joint Finance Committee members have discussed a K-12 package that would keep Gov. Scott Walker’s per pupil boost while meeting the guv’s insistence that property tax bills in 2018 be lower than they were in 2014, sources tell

The framework for an education deal also would create a path for low-spending school districts to increase their spending caps, a goal of Assembly Republicans, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions.

But sources say the discussions have yet to resolve several key issues, including a proposed expansion of the school choice program, changes to the special needs voucher and a property tax exemption that allows schools to exceed revenue limits to invest in energy efficiency programs.

JFC members have said in recent days they were getting closer to a deal on K-12. But they remain far apart, the sources said, on a transportation package that remains a key cog in the budget negotiations. Transpo has to be resolved before the building budget can be finalized because GOP lawmakers are sensitive to the final bonding number in the budget, the sources said.

They continue to discuss whether to embrace Walker’s call to cut income taxes or to at least begin repealing the personal property tax that businesses pay, sources add.

After not meeting this week, it remained unclear if the committee would convene next week to begin voting again on the budget. If it doesn’t, that could push committee deliberations into mid-July because budget watchers considered unlikely a Joint Finance meeting the week of July 4 with the holiday falling on a Tuesday this year.

The education framework would embrace two of Walker’s priorities on education. One, it would keep his call to increase per-pupil categorical aids by $200 in the first year of the budget and $204 in the second year. Two, it would result in a property tax bill on a median-valued home that would be lower in 2018 than it was in 2014.

It also would include Assembly Republican’s push to boost low-spending school districts. Their proposal sought to raise per-pupil limits to $9,800, largely by allowing the districts to collect more in property taxes.

The framework now being discussed would instead take those districts, the lowest of which are at $9,100 per student, to $9,300 in the first year of the budget and $9,400 in the second year, the sources said.

The districts would then be allowed another $100 per year until they reached $9,800.

While the districts would be able to raise that money through property taxes, the state would backfill it to keep down the impact on homeowners’ bills, the sources said.

The framework for the education plan still has some potential road bumps, the sources cautioned.

Committee Republicans have had discussions about boosting the income limits for the school choice program to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $73,800 for a family of four. There’s also been a discussion of the current caps on participation. One consideration, the sources said, is the possible blowback Republicans would receive from the expansion under consideration as well as the fiscal impact for districts and taxpayers.

Also, Walker proposed eliminating the energy efficiency exemption from property tax limits that schools have used to complete maintenance projects, including redoing roofs, replacing boilers and upgrading windows. Created in the 2009-11 budget, it allows school boards to approve an exemption for energy-efficiency projects that result in annual energy savings.

The sources said Republicans have discussed keeping the program, but the issue is whether to find state money to offset the increase in property taxes used to pay for the improvements.

In the 2016-17 school year, 120 school districts districts approved nearly $79.8 million in energy-efficiency exemptions without going to referendum, the highest since the 2009-10 school year, according to Legislative Fiscal Bureau. If the program is kept, the number’s expected to increase. And, if it’s kept and no additional general school aid or school levy credit funding is used to offset property taxes, LFB estimates a median-valued home’s levy would increase by $6 in 2018-19.

Finally, Assembly Republicans in their K-12 plan suggested modifying the payments under the Special Needs Scholarship Program, put in place last year, that would base the funds on a cost estimate prepared by the child’s school district and the actual cost incurred by the private school to educate the child. The payments started off at $12,000, the average categorical aid payment for a special education student, and are indexed to the average categorical aid costs to special education in the future.

The payments are estimated to increase to $12,286 in 2017-18, and $12,548 in 2018-19, according to estimates from the Department of Public Instruction.

But the discussion is over whether to have the scholarship more accurately reflect the cost to educate those children. The argument, the sources said, is whether having the scholarship set at $12,000 creates “winners” for those schools who accept children that cost less than that to educate and a disincentive for schools to accept students whose needs are far higher than the scholarship.

If the committee can resolve those issues, it still has to dig into transportation, which remains the biggest sticking point between the two caucuses.

The office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, this week acknowledged he’s floated the possibility of issuing $850 million in bonds for transportation over the next two years, compared to the $500 million Walker proposed. But Assembly Republicans have balked at the additional borrowing.

Tolling also has become part of the discussion over a final agreement on transportation, though there’s no guarantee the federal government would open the door to the state allowing that. One idea that’s been floated, sources say, is making new bonding contingent upon the feds allowing Wisconsin to begin issuing tolls. There also have been suggestions of using another revenue stream to cover the costs of any new bonding. Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, has suggested a per mile fee on some heavy trucks, which some believe could be an option.

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, declined to discuss details of the ongoing committee discussions. But he said there are “lots of answers out there” and it’s a matter of whether lawmakers are willing to compromise.

“There is no doubt in our caucus that we are focused on more revenue for transportation if we’re going to borrow more money,” Vos said. “If you’re only earning $50,000 and you’re spending at $75,0000, you’ve got to figure a way to get to $75,000 or get to $50,000.”

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