State Assembly continues budget debate
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- School vouchers would not be expanded to Green Bay, transit workers would retain their collective bargaining rights, and a rural broadband program would be unchanged under a series of changes to the state budget endorsed by Republicans as they worked to pass the measure Wednesday in the state Assembly.
Republicans worked secretly on the last-minute changes to the budget from the version that advanced out of committee, delivering them to Democrats about five hours into debate. Many of them undo parts of Gov. Scott Walker's $66 billion two-year spending plan that were added by the Joint Finance Committee.
The amendment was expected to be added to the budget later Wednesday before the Assembly voted on passage. The Senate was to take it up Thursday. Both houses must pass an identical version before it goes to Walker. The budget would take effect July 1.
Vouchers involve using public money to pay for students to attend private or religious schools. Expanding them to Green Bay was one of the last items added to the budget by the committee earlier this month. School leaders blasted it and Republican supporters were unable to hold together support for keeping it in the budget.
Vouchers would still expand to Racine and Milwaukee County schools under the budget. They are currently only allowed in the city of Milwaukee.
Expanding the voucher program has long been a Republican priority. But Jim Bender, a lobbyist for the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin, said allowing vouchers in Green Bay was being taken out as part of a "path to finding resolution" to the budget.
"The conversation regarding school vouchers in Green Bay doesn't end here," Bender said.
The state budget would also loosen the income requirement to participate in the voucher program. To qualify, a family must currently earn less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or $39,630 for a family of four.
The Republican amendment also leaves unchanged the University of Wisconsin's WiscNet program, a non-profit 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.
Republicans also support undoing 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 allowing county road crews to continue to do their own road work instead of being forced to hand over larger projects to private contractors.
Republicans were also changing 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.
The Assembly broke for members to review the changes before debate was expected to resume later Wednesday night.
In the first hours of debate Democrats assailed Walker's budget which balances a projected $3 billion shortfall by making deep cuts to education and other programs while providing tax breaks to manufacturers, multistate corporations and investors.
The budget, which does not include any widespread tax increases and would hold property tax increases to about $50 over two years, will be devastating to the middle class and doesn't spread the burden in plugging the shortfall, said Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca. He cited cuts to higher education, public schools, the University of Wisconsin and programs benefiting the poor.
"I can't believe this is what you think your constituents sent you here to do," Barca said. "Your values do not size up to the heritage of this great state."
Democrats railed against a reduction in tax breaks for some who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and poor homeowners and renters. Democrats offered a series of changes that were rejected one by one by the Republican majority.
"We're in tough times, folks. We're in very tough times," said Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. "And guess what? This is the right budget for the right time. Are we making tough choices? Absolutely."
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 cuts in Medicaid and puts an enrollment cap on a popular program designed to keep senior citizens out of nursing homes.
Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chair of the budget committee, defended the plan as making the cuts necessary to balance the budget while also spurring economic growth through a new manufacturing tax credit and other incentives.
"We said it's time for government to go on a diet and that's exactly what happens in this budget," Vos said. "This budget has so many good things in it. ... This is something all of us can be proud of."
A protester in the Assembly gallery interrupted Vos when he made his first speech on the budget. State patrol officers carried the person away as she shouted "Shame!" and read a prepared statement in opposition to the budget.
Police said that as of 4 p.m. three spectators in the gallery had been arrested for disorderly conduct. A fourth person was arrested for trying to bring drug paraphernalia into the Capitol.
About 100 people were the gallery at the beginning of the debate, but five hours into it their numbers had dwindled to about a dozen.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)