MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers has ordered state agencies to reduce spending by 5% between now and July to save roughly $70 million, drawing praise Wednesday from Republicans who called for even more cuts in the face of steep revenue drops due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although the cuts will bring some savings quickly, they will barely make a dent in the estimated $2 billion budget hit Wisconsin will take over the next year.
"This is a first step," Evers said of the cuts, predicting a difficult year ahead. "These things are important. We think it's one of our ways to get to a better place financially."
The University of Wisconsin announced furloughs across its campuses to address budget shortfalls, as have many private businesses, but none have been put in place yet for state employees.
"As we go forward we will take a look at everything," Evers said when asked if furloughs were coming.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos praised the 5% cut and said Evers should also consider freezing spending during the second year of the budget, which begins July 1.
"While we don't know the complete picture for the state's finances yet, we know it's not going to be good," Vos said.
Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee, called the cut a "great first step."
"If Governor Evers is going to require businesses around the state to remain shuttered, it is only fair that the state government also take a cut," Nygren said. "I anticipate that this will be the first of many actions like this."
Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have asked the conservative state Supreme Court to block Evers' stay-at-home order that closed most nonessential businesses until May 26. Republicans, along with the state's powerful chamber of commerce, want businesses to reopen sooner, particularly in more rural parts of the state that haven't been hit as hard by COVID-19.
Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan informed state employees of the spending cuts in a Tuesday night email. The cuts apply to state operations but not to aid for K-12 schools and local governments.
Brennan said that a state hiring freeze will continue, albeit with exemptions for positions related to responding to the pandemic and positions considered essential for maintaining state agency functions. Merit raises have been suspended and employee travel will be restricted to pandemic response, he added.
The state has received nearly $2 billion in aid from the federal government, but that money won't be enough to cover existing costs, Brennan warned.
To date, 308 people have died of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and the state has had more than 6,500 confirmed cases of the disease. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.
Meat processing plants, particularly in and around Green Bay, have been hot spots. Around 600 meat and food processing workers have contracted the virus, which amounts to 9% of the state's total cases, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
At least 467 workers at three plants in and around Green Bay and more than 100 of their close contacts have gotten sick. There are also more than 100 workers and contractors at a Birds Eye processing plant in Darien who have gotten the virus, the Journal Sentinel reported. The plant, which employs over 800 workers, is nearly shut down, the newspaper said.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump ordered that meatpacking plants reopen to ensure there are no disruptions in the food chain.