By Kate Elizabeth Queram Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — After months of controversy, court decisions, protests and partisan bickering, the state Senate late Thursday passed Gov. Scott Walker’s $66 billion budget after nine hours of debate.
The bill passed on a party-line 19-14 vote, par for the course in a legislative session where Republican and Democratic lawmakers remain sharply divided on nearly all of Walker’s proposed legislation.
The budget heads next to the governor, who is expected to sign it swiftly. Once signed, it will take effect July 1.
In a fitting end to the contentious budget process, a protester began shouting from the Senate chamber’s viewing gallery as Senate President Michael Ellis called for a vote.
“I want my democracy back!” she screamed.
It was the last in a series of interruptions from protesters, which lawmakers did their best to ignore while debating the legislation. Earlier demonstrations included two protesters who chained themselves to railings in the Senate chamber’s viewing gallery.
Between the eruptions, senators hurled accusations and insults across the chamber, each side questioning the others motives.
Republicans accused Democrats of being short-sighted and resisting measures that could bring jobs to Wisconsin, ultimately benefiting the state.
“You want to talk values? Let’s talk values,” said state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. “Frugality … having a job … that’s the mission we have.”
Democrats accused Republicans of ignoring the needs of children by slashing funding for education while introducing tax breaks for businesses, and of targeting low-income residents while refusing to raise taxes on the wealthy.
“It’s an abandonment of our responsibility as officials to make sure that each citizen has the same opportunities,” said state Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar.
Throughout the session, Republicans were interrupted by protesters, whose presence at the Capitol has declined sharply since Tuesday, when the state Supreme Court ruled that Walker’s controversial collective bargaining legislation could take effect.
But the protesters remaining in the viewing gallery Thursday made their presence known, hissing whenever Republicans said anything they found offensive.
Two protesters — Christopher French, 20, of Beaver Dam, and Bridgett O’Brien, 23, of Elroy — chained themselves in the viewing gallery by placing U-shaped bike locks around the backs of their necks and fastening the front to the railings.
Shouting “Kill the bill!”, the duo were snipped off the railing by police using a metal cutter and booked into Dane County Jail on charges of disorderly conduct, obstructing and resisting an officer and unlawful assembly. Following their arrest, security at the Capitol added bike locks and handcuffs to the building’s list of prohibited items.
Another woman was escorted out by police after standing during remarks by state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, pointing and yelling “What happened to our GOP? You’re F-A-S-C-I-S-T!”
Despite those outbursts and over protests from the Democrats, Republicans pushed the budget legislation through, striking down eight amendments in the process.
Changes proposed by the Democrats included increased funding to K-12 education and technical colleges, reinstating full collective bargaining rights to public employees, repealing changes to the state’s child labor laws, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Homestead Credit programs.
All the amendments fell to 19-14 party-line votes.
As passed, the budget cuts funding to public education by roughly $800 million over two years, caps enrollment on a Family Care program designed to keep elderly people out of nursing homes and reduces both homestead tax credits and earned income tax credits, both of which affect predominantly low-income families.
Tax experts say that’s typical in legislative sessions where lawmakers seek to balance a budget without hiking taxes, as Republicans repeatedly said was their goal.
“In any budget that tries to balance a deficit as big as we had, the people that are going to get hit are those that use government services, especially if we’re generally taking taxes off the table,” said Dale Knapp, research director of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. “(Those affected) generally are lower and middle-income people.”
Democrats criticized that tactic with pointed barbs and rhetoric, but lacked the votes to block any measures, a final echo of what they considered a frustrating legislative session.
“This is not the way we do things in Wisconsin, and we’ve said that all along,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton.
But Republicans rejected that criticism, saying that despite its contentious nature, the budget fits the values of hard-working Wisconsinites and ultimately will benefit the state.
“The values we’re reflecting in this budget fit the values of the people I know in Wisconsin,” Darling said. “Let’s go out for a beer in two years, and I can guarantee we’re going to be better off than we are now.”