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Assembly moves to pass Wisconsin budget, Senate not on board



Speaker Vos pushed ahead vote, saying he wouldn’t
be “held hostage” by the Senate GOP wanting changes 

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly prepared to pass the $76 billion state budget Wednesday even as the state Senate’s leader said he didn’t have enough votes to pass the two-year spending plan.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos pushed ahead with a vote anyway, saying he would not be “held hostage” by Senate Republicans who are seeking last-minute changes to the budget that is already 10 weeks late. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald emerged from a closed-door meeting with senators to say he still didn’t have the needed 17 votes, but he hoped to get there by Friday when the Senate plans to vote on the budget.

“I think the responsibility of governing has to settle in,” Republican Sen. Alberta Darling said after the meeting. She predicted reticent senators would come around the vote for the budget Friday, adding “It’s not perfect, no budget ever is.”

The proposal largely mirrors what Gov. Scott Walker introduced in February and comes as he is preparing to run for a third term next year. It increases spending for K-12 public schools by 5.9 percent, freezes tuition on University of Wisconsin campuses, raises fees on electric and hybrid car drivers, and borrows $400 million more for road projects. All prevailing wage requirements for state projects would be eliminated under the budget in September 2018.

Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly by their largest margins in decades but have struggled to find agreement on the budget, leading to its late passage. The spending plan was due on July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, but Republicans spent the summer quarreling over how to pay for road work. Current spending levels continued during the impasse, lessening the urgency for Republicans to reach a deal.

Now, at least three GOP senators are withholding their support for the budget

Sens. Steve Nass, Duey Stroebel and Chris Kapenga put together a memo saying they want amendments that would end the prevailing wage by Jan. 1; block the University of Wisconsin System from spending $4 million on diversity training for students and faculty; require municipalities to impose wheel taxes only if approved through a referendum; and raise the income eligibility limit for the statewide voucher school program from 220 percent of the federal poverty level to 300 percent.

Republicans control the Senate 20-13 but Fitzgerald needs 17 votes to pass anything.

Walker told reporters earlier Wednesday he would sign off on last-minute budget changes speeding up repeal of the prevailing wage and making additional DOT reforms. But Assembly Republicans made only small technical changes to the budget on the floor. None of the changes included anything addressing the Senate Republicans’ demands, raising doubt about whether the budget will clear the full Legislature this week.

“We are not going to allow individual senators to rewrite the budget,” Vos said.

While passage out of the Assembly remains all but certain, the only question was when the chamber would actually vote. Republicans agreed to let Democrats debate the spending plan for 12 hours. The floor session began at noon and Democrats were still taking turns bashing the budget as the clock ticked toward 7 p.m. Majority Leader Jim Steineke said he expected debate would go on until midnight with a vote to follow.

Democrats focused their criticism on tax cuts benefiting the wealthy rather than reducing taxes for the working poor, saying Republicans had “rigged” the budget against the middle class. They also highlighted the failure of Republicans to come up with a long-term funding plan for roads and jabbed the GOP for failing to line up votes in the Senate.

“I see that the Senate doesn’t have the votes yet,” Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland said. “You’re doing your most important job (passing a budget) and you can’t do it well. That’s disappointing.”

Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, acknowledged the budget has taken longer than usual but funds the state’s priorities.

“This budget helps thousands of families throughout our state,” Nygren said on the Assembly floor.

Walker defended the proposed budget plan from Democratic critics, saying it fulfills his goals of increasing funding for K-12 schools without increasing property taxes.