At the start of the last legislative session two years ago, the legislature faced an immediate shortfall in the state’s budget for that fiscal year plus a $3.6 billion structural deficit that needed to be addressed in the biennial budget.
There was no federal bailout to save us, and we were determined not to rely on accounting gimmicks or funds transfers to balance the budget. We knew that the 2011-2012 legislative session would be a hard one, and it was.
But hard work pays off.
Last session we balanced the budget without accounting tricks or raising taxes.
It was not a budget that everyone liked, but it was one the state could afford.
We did what most families do: looked at our resources and our most pressing needs and did our best.
One of our priorities last session was to fund the state’s Medicaid program, which provides health care access to some of our most vulnerable citizens.
By making tough choices, we were able to do that, and today the Medicaid budget is balanced.
Of course, the state’s budget is only part of the work the legislature does.
When the budget process was complete, we took a hard look at education in our state, and working with the governor and the state superintendent we approved new legislation to make fundamental improvements to our schools.
The Read to Lead Task Force’s work led to legislation that created a public-private partnership to raise money to support reading and early childhood development initiatives statewide.
The new law requires all students in kindergarten take an early childhood reading screener beginning this school year.
Another part of the initiative requires the state to improve the rigor of the reading portion of the licensure exam for new elementary school teachers and special education teachers by 2013-14.
Finally, the new law ensures districts and future teachers know which college and university teacher preparation programs produce the best teachers, allowing for feedback that will help these programs improve.
DPI’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force was aimed at creating a fair and rigorous system for evaluating teachers and principals.
Based on the recommendations of this task force, I authored legislation to create a framework for a teacher and principal evaluation system based on both student outcomes and educator practice.
Teachers will not be evaluated on raw test scores but rather will be evaluated on the value-added growth of their students.
This way, the evaluation focuses only on what a teacher can control and does not punish a teacher or principal for taking on a tough assignment.
In addition to these initiatives, I also authored a number of school-related bills that became law.
One bill expands the period of time parents have to apply to send their children to a non-resident school district.
This new law now gives parents roughly three months, as opposed to just three weeks, to choose the best school for their child.
Another provides school districts with flexibility in meeting state requirements, while another addresses the use of seclusion and restraint of students in schools.
As the legislature begins its 2013-14 session, the financial story is different.
We are preparing to tackle the next state budget, but this time, with money in the bank. Wisconsin’s economy is growing, albeit at a pace slower than what many of us would like.
Personal income is expected to grow more in 2013 and 2014 than it did in 2012, and the housing sector is beginning to recover, on both a state and national level.
My goal for this new legislative session is one shared by many of my colleagues: encouraging private sector job growth in the state.
I expect that we will see new mining legislation and additional bills to make sure that our governmental regulations do not go so far as to hurt economic development.
In addition to my work on the Joint Finance Committee and as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I am looking forward to continuing work on legislation being developed by the Special Committee on Improving Educational Opportunities in High School.
Watch for more information about that legislation in coming months.