Two months past deadline, Wisconsin Assembly approves state budget

By Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times 

Wisconsin is one step closer to enacting a state budget, with the approval of the state Assembly granted late Wednesday night.

Lawmakers in the Assembly voted 57-39 after 11 hours of debate to approve the $76 billion spending plan, now more than two months past its deadline.

All Democratic members voted against the plan. They were joined in opposition by Republican Reps. Scott Allen of Waukesha, Janel Brandtjen of Menomonee Falls, Bob Gannon of West Bend, Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake and Joe Sanfelippo of New Berlin.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the budget, along with an incentive package for the manufacturing company Foxconn, would leave a structural deficit of just shy of $1 billion by 2021.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said this week he is "hopeful" the Senate can take up the plan on Friday. As of Wednesday, he didn't have the 17 votes needed to approve the legislation — and Wednesday evening, three Republican senators released a memo outlining what it would take to earn their support.

Vos said Wednesday he refused to make "wholesale changes to appease the wishes" of any holdout senators. He noted that lawmakers in both houses have had the chance to work with members of the Joint Finance Committee throughout the budget process to offer requests and concerns.

"That's not how our process works, and we’re not going to be held hostage to individuals who have some kind of a wish list," Vos told reporters.

If the Senate makes changes to the spending plan, it would be sent back to the Assembly. But Vos said just before the budget is passed the Assembly will not return next week.

Vos said lawmakers "took a really good budget and took it into a fantastic end product." That process included a prolonged standoff between the Senate and Assembly as the Republican majorities failed to reach an agreement on transportation funding.

"We should have done more, but in a time of political compromise, we got as much as we possibly could, with some folks who just seem to be intransigent to the problem," Vos said.

Wednesday's lengthy debate made clear that the chasm between the two political parties is broad. Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, went so far as to say there wasn't a single thing in the budget that she could support, and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, criticized Republicans for rejecting Democratic amendments.

Vos said Democrats did not offer suggestions that could lead to compromise, "you tried to find things that would drive us apart."

Democrats made liberal use of the word "rigged" as they criticized the Republican-backed spending plan, while Republicans accused Democrats of being distracted by their own internal politics as they prepare to elect a new minority leader.

"This budget is rigged against working families, hard working citizens and the people of the state," said Joint Finance Committee member Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

But Assembly Democrats and Republicans agreed the budget missed an opportunity to offer a long-term solution to pay for the state's roads.

Transportation funding

The transportation package approved in the budget includes about $402 million in borrowing, new fees for electric and hybrid vehicles, construction delays and modifications to quarry regulations.

It requires the state Department of Transportation to cut 100 positions in each year of the budget and lapse $13 million tied to those reductions. Owners of electric vehicles would pay an additional $100 fee, while owners of hybrid vehicles would pay a $75 fee, bringing in about $8.4 million over the budget period.

The budget completely eliminates the state's prevailing wage law, which sets minimum pay requirements for construction workers on public projects, would be completely eliminated. Proponents of the move say it's an antiquated regulation that sets unfair and arbitrary pay thresholds, but Democrats argued repealing the law will lead to lower wages and unsafe work conditions.

Under the budget, the prevailing wage repeal would take effect on Sept. 18, 2018. Some Republican senators have said they want to see that moved up to Jan. 1, and Gov. Scott Walker told reporters on Wednesday he would be comfortable enacting it as soon as the budget is passed. A Democratic amendment to remove the repeal was rejected.

K-12 funding

Also included in the budget is a $639 million funding boost to K-12 schools — about $10 million less than what Walker originally proposed. The education budget includes an increase in per-pupil aid of $200 in the 2017-18 school year and $204 in the following year.

Under the budget plan, school districts that spend less than most others could gradually raise their revenue limits from $9,100 per pupil up to $9,800 per pupil over the course of several years.

"For the first time since 1993 we’re going to significantly improve the disparity that’s existed between the school districts," said Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette.

Republicans have frequently touted the "historic investment" in schools, but Democrats argue that, adjusted for inflation, state aid for schools is lower than it was more than a decade ago.

The budget also raises the income limits for the statewide private voucher program — which operates outside of the programs in Milwaukee and Racine — from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 220 percent.

Democrats were critical of the expansion, while Republicans championed it.

Tax changes

The spending plan also implements a series of tax cuts and changes, eliminating the state's alternative minimum tax and offering tax breaks for business owners.

Barca referred to the budget as "Robin Hood in reverse" — taking money from the working and middle classes and giving it to the wealthy.

The budget eliminates the state's portion of the property tax, known as the forestry mill tax, and a portion of the personal property tax applying to machinery, tools and patterns not used for manufacturing.

Lawmakers rejected Walker's proposed income tax cuts, sales tax holiday and adjustments to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Joint Finance member Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, rejected Democrats' criticisms of the tax changes.

"Our tax code once again is going to be fairer, simpler and easier to understand," Kooyenga said.

University of Wisconsin System

Tuition at University of Wisconsin System schools will be frozen for another two years, but the budget will not include Walker's proposal to cut tuition.

The UW budget also includes $26.3 million in performance-based funding to be tied to four goals for the UW System: student access, student progress and completion, contributions to the workforce and operational efficiency and effectiveness. The Board of Regents will be required to set metrics to measure schools' progress toward those goals if they stay in the budget once it is formally adopted

Drug testing for public benefits

Wisconsin could be the first state to require childless adults to undergo drug testing in order to sign up for Medicaid, under a provision approved Wednesday.

Under the plan, childless adult Medicaid recipients would be required to work or receive job training for 80 hours per month. Those recipients would also be subjected to drug screening and testing.

Lawmakers voted to allow Walker to seek a federal waiver for the program, but the program could not be enacted without approval from the Joint Finance Committee. The committee would also have the authority to modify the waiver.

The budget also expands a drug screening and testing program for public benefits recipients implemented in the previous state budget.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

The state's jobs agency will be allowed to issue new loans again. The program was previously shut down after issues emerged. Lawmakers have said WEDC has made "significant strides" in improving the agency's operations since a 2015 audit found the agency did not independently verify whether businesses receiving tax dollars created the jobs they promised.