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Assembly begins budget debate

Associated Press

State Senate President Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, listens to a debate in the Senate chamber at the state Capitol in Madison on Tuesday. The Assembly began to debate the state's budget just after 2 p.m. Wednesday. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Democrats assailed Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget Wednesday in the opening minutes of debate on his plan to balance a projected $3 billion shortfall by making deep cuts to education and other programs.

The $66 billion budget, which does not include any widespread tax increases, 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.”

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.”

There are no general sales or income tax increases in the budget, which would also hold property tax increases to about $50 for the average home over two years. At the same time, it would reduce tax breaks for some who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and poor homeowners and renters.

The budget cuts public education money 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 money 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.

Democrats planned to offer a series of changes that are expected to be rejected by the Republican majority. Once the Assembly passes the budget, expected later Wednesday, it will head to the Senate and debate there that is expected to begin Thursday morning. Both houses must pass an identical version before it goes to Walker. The budget would take effect July 1.

Republicans plan to offer a number of changes to the plan that was worked on for months in the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee. Among them, removing a provision that would allow voucher schools in Green Bay as part of an expansion of an existing program.

The Assembly also was expected to allow the University of Wisconsin to continue to receive about $40 million in federal money to pay for making broadband Internet access available in rural areas, reversing a change made by the budget committee.

It was also expected to revisit a proposal that would require local governments use private contractors for certain public works projects and add transit workers to those who are exempt from Walker’s divisive law taking away union bargaining rights from public workers.

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.

School vouchers, in which public money is used to pay for students to attend private or religious schools, is currently only allowed in the city of Milwaukee. Walker proposed in his budget allowing Milwaukee students to also attend private and religious schools in Milwaukee County.

The Joint Finance Committee voted first to expand vouchers to Racine and then, in one of its last votes on June 3, extended the program to Green Bay. The expansion to Racine and Milwaukee County will remain, Bender said.

Allowing vouchers in Green Bay caught school officials there by surprise and they blasted the last-minute addition. State Superintendent Tony Evers also criticized the expansion of voucher programs at a time when Walker’s budget proposes cutting public education money by $800 million and reduces how much money schools can raise through property taxes.

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.

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.

About 100 people were watching the debate and about 2,500 protesters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday, the day the Assembly was to have begun the budget debate.


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