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Budget panel OKs Evers’ clean water borrowing plan

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Legislature’s budget-writing committee overwhelmingly approved Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal Tuesday to authorize more borrowing for clean water projects, handing the governor a small victory after killing his plan to replace lead pipes across the state last week.

The state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Administration jointly run the clean water program and safe drinking water program. The clean water program provides low-interest loans to municipalities for planning, building or replacing wastewater treatment facilities, reducing nonpoint pollution and reducing storm water runoff. The safe drinking water program provides matching dollars for federal aid for building and upgrading drinking water infrastructure such as well houses and water mains.

Evers has declared 2019 the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin.

His budget calls for increasing the clean water program’s borrowing authority by $13.5 million to cover hardship projects that have qualified for funding since 2017.

The program sets aside subsidies each biennium to help municipalities that meet financial hardship criteria, including whether the municipality’s median household income is 80 percent or less than the state’s median income and annual charges per residential user for wastewater treatment would exceed 2 percent of the median household income, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.

Republicans decided to eliminate the hardship component in the current state budget and reduced borrowing authority by $40.6 million.

They retained eligibility for initial applications submitted prior to mid-2017 and final applications submitted prior to mid-2018, however. The state Department of Administration at the time estimated that the $40.6 million reduction in borrowing authority would leave about $6 million in borrowing authority to cover those projects.

But the Department of Administration has since discovered accounting mistakes that show the program actually needs authorization to borrow up to $19.5 million to cover the projects.

As for the safe drinking water program, Evers wants to add $3.6 million in general obligation bonding authorization as a transition during the next fiscal year from general obligation bonds to revenue-backed bonds. General obligation bonds can be repaid from a variety of sources. Revenue bonds are repaid using money generated from specific projects.

The Joint Finance Committee considered the proposals Tuesday. Republicans control the committee but joined the three Democratic members in voting to approve both proposals unanimously with almost no discussion.

Democrats still complained bitterly, though, about committee Republicans’ decision Thursday to erase an Evers proposal to authorize $40 million in borrowing to help municipalities replace lead laterals, which are pipes that carry water from mains into homes. Republicans have argued that most of the money would be spent replacing laterals in Milwaukee and that it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the state.

The provision was one of more than 100 Evers’ proposals the GOP stripped from the spending plan that day in a single vote.

The committee’s co-chairman, Republican Rep. John Nygren, tried to cut off comments about the move Tuesday, saying he doesn’t plan to revisit past actions as the committee continues reviewing Evers’ budget. Democrats appealed that ruling, using it as a platform to rail against Republicans over lead pipes.

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, told the panel that his home has lead pipes. He poured a glass of water from a thermos he said held water from his faucet and challenged anyone to drink it. Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Madison, said that if southeastern Wisconsin, a Republican stronghold, was struggling with lead pipes, the Legislature would be holding extraordinary sessions to deal with the problem.

“OK,” Nygren responded. “Politics on full display.”

The panel ultimately voted 11-4 to not allow committee members to revisit past votes.

Committee Republicans scrapped another Evers proposal Tuesday to save a grant program that helps home and small business owners replace failing septic systems. Under the current state budget, the program ends in mid-2021. Evers had proposed continuing it indefinitely. The GOP did approve providing the program with another $185,000, however. Its currently appropriated $840,000 annually.

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