Wisconsin Assembly passes budget, sends it to Walker
MADISON—The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly passed the state budget with only two votes to spare early Thursday morning, sending the $73 billion spending plan on to Gov. Scott Walker four days before he was to officially launch his presidential campaign.
Walker has not said when he will sign it, but fast action before the Monday presidential announcement was expected. Walker was to spend all of next week traveling to four early presidential primary voting states, and he's repeatedly said he didn't want to begin his campaign until after the budget was signed.
The budget passed on a 52-46 vote, with 11 Republicans joining all 35 Democrats in opposition. One Democrat was absent. The Senate passed it 18-15 on Tuesday, with one Republican breaking ranks.
Assembly debate leading up to the vote was anti-climactic — other than a two-hour delay caused by a bomb threat leading to evacuation of the Capitol. During debate that began shortly after noon Wednesday and ended at 12:40 a.m. Thursday, Assembly Republicans rejected all Democratic amendments, which would have done such things as increased funding for K-12 schools and the University of Wisconsin and undone numerous other portions of the GOP plan.
The budget as passed holds property taxes in check, does not raise income or sales taxes, cuts University of Wisconsin funding by $250 million while freezing tuition for two years, and largely holds funding for public K-12 schools flat next year while also expanding the private school voucher program.
It also will require public aid recipients to undergo a screening for drugs, eliminates the prevailing wage paid to construction workers on public projects at the local level and lowers borrowing for transportation work by $450 million that will lead to delays in some projects.
Assembly Democrats ripped the plan calling it "awful," a "mess" and a "dumpster fire." Even some Republicans badmouthed the budget as first delivered by Walker. Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, said Walker's proposal at first was a "piece of crap," but the Legislature made it better.
Republicans rejected numerous Walker proposals. Most significantly they did not go along with breaking UW apart from state laws and oversight, reduced Walker's proposed cut to the university from $300 million to $250 million and rejected cuts to the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program.
Still, Democratic Rep. Terese Berceau, of Madison, said it was the worst budget she'd seen in 17 years in office.
"This one makes me sad, depressed and actually sick to my stomach," she said. "You're doing damage to things we might not be able to repair."
Republicans vigorously defended the spending plan, saying it was a good plan for taxpayers because it trims the state workforce, doesn't raise taxes and freezes tuition at UW.
"We made financially prudent decisions," said Rep. Michael Schraa, a Republican from Oshkosh who sits on the budget committee. "It was a challenging budget, but we made good decisions regarding taxpayer dollars."
Walker's impending presidential campaign loomed heavily over the debate, just as it has since he introduced the budget in February in the opening weeks of his second term as governor. Walker hoped to have the budget completed more quickly so he could easily sail into his presidential announcement. But a five-week impasse that ran from May 29 until last week delayed passage until a week into the new budget year.
Things finally got moving again last week after Republicans decided to trim road borrowing to $850 million, end prevailing wage requirements on local governments starting in 2017 and advance a separate bill committing $250 million in tax dollars to a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks arena bill was expected to be debated next week. The Assembly was to return later Thursday morning to vote on a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Budget debate was delayed for two hours while police investigated what a Walker administration spokesman described as a "credible" bomb threat. The entire building and the grounds, where people were gathering for an outdoor concert, were evacuated beginning shortly before 4 p.m. and re-opened about 90 minutes later.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report