Wisconsin Senate debating Walker's budget bill
MADISON Gov. Scott Walker's first budget, which Democrats attacked with fierce rhetoric but didn't have the votes to stop, moved close to passage Thursday as the Senate prepared to approve the same version the Assembly cleared on a pre-dawn party line vote.
Republicans are moving quickly to approve the $66 billion two-year spending plan in the face of recall elections that could give Democrats control of the Senate and the ability to block their agenda.
Walker, who has worked closely with legislative leaders on a deal that closely mirrors his original proposal released in March, was expected to quickly sign the budget that takes effect July 1. The Republican governor also has expansive line-item veto power to change anything in the plan that he disagrees with. He hasn't indicated what he intends to veto.
His spokesman Cullen Werwie did knock down one fear that erupted Thursday among opponents of school vouchers that language added to the budget by the Assembly could result in the expansion of the program statewide instead of just to Racine.
Walker and Republicans support expanding vouchers beyond the city of Milwaukee. The budget as it passed the Assembly on a 60-38 vote would allow vouchers in Milwaukee County and the city of Racine, but language was removed that would have permitted them in Green Bay.
Voucher opponents said they were worried Walker could easily veto the language to allow vouchers to go statewide. The pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin is led by two former Republican speakers of the Assembly — Scott Jensen and John Gard.
"These guys know how to write legislation," said Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. "We're not dealing with rookies here in Scott Jensen and John Gard. I don't believe that anything happens by accident in this business."
Werwie said the governor will not line-item veto that section and his intention was to only have vouchers expand to Racine and Milwaukee County as the Legislature intended. Jim Bender, a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin, also said the intention was not to allow vouchers to go statewide.
Even so, state Superintendent Tony Evers issued a statement saying criteria put in the budget that would currently allow only Racine to qualify could soon qualify other cities including Green Bay, Appleton, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Madison, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Superior, and West Allis.
The expansion of vouchers was just one of several trigger points for Democrats who attacked Walker's budget during 13 hours of debate in the Assembly, which ended with a passage vote at 3 a.m., and in the Senate which started discussion Thursday afternoon.
Democrats said the budget that cuts funding for public schools, higher education and programs benefiting the poor, at the same time as it extends tax breaks to manufacturers and multistate corporations and increases funding for roads, was an attack on the middle class.
"People are frightened in Wisconsin by this economic situation," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar. "They're extremely frightened their own government is abandoning them. This budget is an assault on those very people."
But Sen. Alberta Darling, one of the Republican co-chairs of the budget-writing committee, said the spending plan was about helping small businesses, entrepreneurs and farmers.
"I want to give those individuals the freedom to decide what to do with their own money," she said.
The budget cuts public education funding by $800 million over two years and reduces the ability of local school districts to make it up through property tax increases. It also cuts UW funding by $250 million, calls for $500 million in cuts in Medicaid and puts an enrollment cap on a popular program designed to keep senior citizens out of nursing homes.
Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby said the budget represented "the CEOs against the average Joes. Everything in this budget is made to benefit the haves and punish the have-nots."
Republicans called it a responsible approach to solving a $3 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes.
"We're doing the job we were elected to do," Republican Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said. "We balanced the books and we did it without a $5 billion federal government bailout."
Assembly Republicans made their mark on the budget, reversing many changes to Walker's original proposal that had been put in by the Joint Finance Committee over the past several weeks. No Democratic amendments were adopted.
The Assembly voted to allow transit workers to retain their collective bargaining rights to prevent possibly losing about $46 million in federal transit aid. They would join local police, firefighters and members of the state patrol who also keep their collective bargaining rights under the law, which removes it for other public workers except over base wage increases no greater than inflation.
The budget would also protect a program bringing broadband Internet service to rural areas. It also approved keeping alive the University of Wisconsin's WiscNet program, a nonprofit cooperative that brings high-speed Internet services to about 75 percent of public schools in Wisconsin and nearly all public libraries. Originally, it would have had to return about $40 million in federal money under the budget.
UW spokesman David Giroux called the deal, which requires any new financial commitments to be approved by the Legislature's budget committee, a reasonable compromise.
Republicans also voted to undo proposed changes to the state's eminent domain law that would have made it harder for landowners to challenge the government's taking of their land and to allow county road crews to continue to do their own road work instead of being forced to hand over larger projects to private contractors.
Republicans also changed the budget to ensure that public officials' ethics statements can be emailed to constituents instead of only being available for viewing in person in Madison.
Also, schools ordered to get rid of race-based nicknames by the state would have until Jan. 15, 2013, to comply instead of within 12 months in most cases.
Two protesters disrupted a brief Senate session in the morning by shouting, "Kill the bill" and then using rigid bicycle locks to chain themselves to the railings of a public gallery that overlooks the Senate floor. They encircled the U-shaped locks around the back of their necks and waited as authorities eventually broke the locks and took them into custody an hour later.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report.