Republican opposition to Walker budget growing
MADISON Cracks are already starting to show in Republican support for some major portions of Gov. Scott Walker's budget.
Walker and the Republicans who control the Legislature have been in close agreement on most major issues over the past two years, most notably the proposal that effectively ended collective bargaining for public workers. Only one Republican voted against that, despite tremendous public pressure to oppose it, as well as massive protests against Walker and threats of recall elections.
But Walker's latest budget, which deals with how to spend a surplus rather than plug a deficit like in 2011, isn't finding the same unified GOP support.
Sen. Luther Olsen, a member of the Legislature's budget committee and chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, called Walker's proposal to freeze public education spending "totally inadequate."
"I've been hearing from lots of schools since this came out saying we can't live with this, this is almost punitive," said Olsen, R-Ripon. "We're going to have to make some changes and I'm hearing that from my colleagues in the Legislature as well."
Olsen said it appeared Walker, by not allowing school spending to grow at all, was "almost egging us on to change it."
School spending can't be frozen forever, said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the proposal likely will be changed to allow for a small increase.
Republicans have complete power to make any changes to Walker's budget they wish, with a 60-39 majority in the Assembly and an 18-15 Senate majority. But they must also be careful not to stray too far from Walker to risk vetoes.
Other areas attracting GOP opposition are Walker's call to hire 710 more state employees; sell power plants and other state facilities; increase bonding for roads projects; give the University of Wisconsin more spending freedom; and make it easier for rent-to-own businesses to operate in the state.
Republicans are also concerned about the fact that as proposed Walker's plan will create $188 million more in spending commitments than the state is projected to have available to pay them heading into the next two-year cycle starting in 2015.
This structural deficit is particularly bothersome for Walker and Republicans, as they boasted on the campaign trail last year about having eliminated the previous shortfall.
"This is a perception problem," said Republican Senate President Mike Ellis. "We fought against the structural deficit and now we've got one, even though it's not large."
Two years ago, the Legislature largely went along with Walker's budget, which eliminated a projected $3.6 billion shortfall through deep cuts to public and higher education, requiring public workers to pay more for pension and health insurance benefits, and reducing other expenditures.
Wisconsin now has a projected $484 million budget surplus, and everyone is clamoring for a piece of the pie. Spending that money, on such things as Walker's proposed $343 million income tax cut, leads to the projected shortfall.
Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, along with Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, also expressed concern about the structural deficit and said they would work to eliminate it.
"Once you go down that road of bad budgeting, you're setting yourself up for dilemmas," Cowles said. "It's not catastrophic but it's putting your foot in the door again when we thought this was done."
Nass also said Thursday he would work to stop the proposed hiring of 61 new auditors and investigators at the Department of Revenue.
That proposed hiring is part of a 710-worker expansion included in Walker's budget.
Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the budget committee, questioned the move, saying adding that many workers would only increase the state's health and pension costs.
Vos said he was skeptical the new hires are needed, but he could be persuaded they are necessary.
Ultimately, as with any budget, the governor's proposal will pass largely unchanged, Vos said.
"The Senate may want to give him 93 percent, and we may want to give him 97 percent, but he'll get most of what he wants," Vos said.