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Assembly Republicans OK budget calling for higher pay for prosecutors (UPDATE)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos joins his fellow Republicans on Tuesday in the Assembly chambers before a planned vote to pass the GOP’s version of the state budget. Vos argues the budget is fiscally responsible, but Democrats argue it falls short in various ways. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos joins his fellow Republicans on Tuesday in the Assembly chambers before a planned vote to pass the GOP’s version of the state budget. Vos argues the budget is fiscally responsible, but Democrats argue it falls short in various ways. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans approved increasing pay for prosecutors and other last-minute changes to the state budget on Tuesday to appease skeptical conservatives, saying their proposals are fiscally responsible and should be signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers.

The changes would not only increase pay but also hire more prosecutors throughout the state, take steps to reduce a projected property-tax increase, give towns more money for roads and allow Tesla to sell cars directly to customers in Wisconsin.

One amendment would spend an additional $3.4 million to increase pay for district attorneys in Wisconsin. That change would put $1.2 million more into prosecutors’ salaries in 2019 and $2.2 million in 2020. 

The proposal comes after lawmakers voted earlier this session for the first increase that public defenders will have received since 1995. The Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted in late May to spend $25 million to take the pay of public defenders up from $40 an hour to $70 an hour.

Also on Tuesday, Republican put forward an amendment that would spend nearly $3.6 million to hire some 35 additional full-time assistant district attorneys throughout the state. Lawmakers previously agreed to set aside cash for 30 new hires, bringing the proposed increase to nearly 65 prosecutors.

Marathon County would get enough money for the equivalent of 4.5 full-time positions, and Waukesha County would get an additional 2.5 full-time positions. Milwaukee County, though, would get no money for additional assistant district attorneys, while Dane County would get enough to pay for 15% of a full-time prosecutor’s salary. 

The new hires would start on or around Oct. 1.

Evers and his fellow Democrats haven’t enough votes to stop or change the budget but have said that it falls short of what’s needed to provide health care to more people, repair the state’s roads and pay for schools.

Following the Assembly approval of the two-year spending plan on Tuesday, the Senate was planning to vote on it on Wednesday. The budget would then go to Evers, who has broad powers to make changes using partial vetoes. He has also threatened to take the unprecedented step of vetoing the entire budget and force lawmakers to start over.

The current budget runs through Sunday, but state government would not shut down if there were a stalemate. Instead, current spending levels would continue until the next two-year budget is enacted, however long that takes.

One of the changes Republicans planned to make was to replace the phrases “may not” and “shall not” with “cannot” throughout the budget, making it more difficult for Evers to reverse the intent of Republicans using a partial veto.

Evers has the power to strike individual words from the budget, which both Republican and Democratic governors have done in the past to undo the will of the Legislature.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, speaking to reporters before debate, said Republicans wanted to “veto proof” the budget as much as possible to thwart Evers from greatly changing the spending plan.

“This is a good budget,” said Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget-writing committee. “This is a budget that is for all of Wisconsin and I am very proud to say this is a budget Governor Evers should sign into law.”

Democrats continued to push for priorities Republicans had rejected. Those included providing Medicaid to 82,000 more poor people and tapping $1.6 billion worth of federal money for health care; raising gas taxes as a part of a long-term plan for roads; and increasing K-12 school aid by $1.4 billion, including $600 million for special education.

Republicans rejected the additional Medicaid money but are still directing about $588 million in new spending to health care. They are raising aid to K-12 schools by $500 million and opting for vehicle-registration and titling-fee increases to pay for roads, rather than a gas-tax increase.

Republicans also want to reduce income taxes by about $450 million. That would cut income taxes an average of $75 a person in 2019 and $136 in 2020. Evers, in contrast, had proposed an even bigger income-tax cut, one to be paid for by nearly ending a tax credit provided to manufacturers.

The last-minute Republican amendment would reduce by $5 over the next two years a projected property-tax increase on the typical owner of a median-valued home. That would make the combined increase on the owner of a roughly $174,000 home $99 over two years, instead of $104, as the budget proposed by both Evers and the budget committee had called for.

One provision to be added to the budget would allow the electric-car manufacturer Tesla to sell its vehicles directly to customers in Wisconsin. Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga has been pushing for the law change for two years.

Supporters argue that allowing Tesla to open dealerships in the state would give customers more choices and help foster competition in the free market. But opponents say it could put other car manufacturers, who are prohibited from operating their own dealerships, at a disadvantage.

Nate Beck of the Wisconsin Law Journal contributed to this article.

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