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Assembly passes budget on party line vote

Members of the public sit in the gallery for a session of the state Assembly at the Capitol in Madison on Wednesday. The Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's budget early Thursday morning. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican-controlled state Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget early Thursday over objections from Democrats who derided it as an assault on the middle class that will hurt public education, weaken programs for the poor and make it harder to get health care services.

Republicans who voted for the $66 billion plan after more than 13 hours of debate called it a responsible approach to solving a $3 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes while still providing tax breaks for manufacturers, multistate corporations and investors.

“We’re doing the job we were elected to do,” Republican Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said. “We balanced the books and we did it without a $5 billion federal government bailout.”

The Assembly passed it 60-38 with all Republicans and one independent for it and all 38 Democrats against.

The budget now heads to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, which planned to take it up Thursday morning about seven hours after the Assembly took its vote around 3 a.m. It must pass in identical forms before heading to Walker for his consideration. The budget would take effect July 1.

Assembly Republicans made their mark on the budget, reversing many changes to Walker’s original proposal that had been put in by the Joint Finance Committee over the past several weeks. No Democratic amendments were adopted.

“I believe this budget met the challenge,” said Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. “The economy’s going to grow and hopefully the problems, the mistakes we made in this budget, we can fix in the fall.”

Republicans voted not to expand the voucher program to Green Bay, but did vote to allow transit workers to retain their collective bargaining rights and protect a program bringing broadband Internet service to rural areas.

Vouchers, which involve using public money to pay for students to attend private or religious schools, were blasted by Green Bay school leaders and Republican leaders were unable to keep support together for it to remain in the budget. Vouchers would still expand to Racine and Milwaukee County schools under the proposal.

They are currently only allowed in the city of Milwaukee.

The Republican amendment also keeps alive 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.

UW spokesman David Giroux called the deal, which requires any new financial commitments to be approved by the Legislature’s budget committee, a reasonable compromise.

Republicans also voted to undo 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 to allow county road crews to continue to do their own road work instead of being forced to hand over larger projects to private contractors.

Republicans also changed 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.

Exempting local transit workers from the collective bargaining law was done to prevent possibly losing about $46 million in federal transit aid. They would join local police, firefighters and members of the state patrol who also keep their collective bargaining rights under the law, which removes it for other public workers except over base wage increases no greater than inflation.

Democrats railed against a reduction in tax breaks for some who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and poor homeowners and renters.

Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby said the budget represented “the CEOs against the average Joes. Everything in this budget is made to benefit the haves and punish the have nots.”

Republicans defended the plan, which has generated protests in the Capitol for weeks.

“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 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 money for UW 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, said the cuts were 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 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 in the gallery at the beginning of the debate, but as the night went on their numbers dwindled to around a dozen by the time the vote came.

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