By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — They picked up their ball and went home.
Assembly Democrats, fed up with what they saw as the futility of fighting a “disastrous” Republican-crafted state budget proposal, on Wednesday declined to offer amendments or to even debate the $68 billion, two-year spending plan.
Instead, the minority party effectively gave the majority the silent treatment.
Republicans quickly brushed off the political statement, and used their numbers to pass a budget they praised for lifting a big burden off of Wisconsin taxpayers.
Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, had plenty to say at a press conference following the budget’s passage on a 55-42 vote.
“When you keep hitting a brick wall, sometimes you’ve got to try something different,” Barca said.
Flanked by his fellow Democrats, Barca said the party would take its message to constituents. The minority leader was the only Democrat to speak on the floor about the budget during a day scheduled for several hours of debate before an expected late-afternoon vote.
“You can say whatever you want to about this budget, but it’s actually the numbers that reveal your priorities and values,” Barca said. “The rhetoric is flying, but it doesn’t match the numbers.”
He chided Republicans for passing a budget with a projected $500 million structural deficit in 2017, a 1 percent increase in property taxes in each of the next two years and a more than $650 million income tax cut, which he says favors wealthy Wisconsinites.
But the GOP budget doesn’t hold a candle to the $2.1 billion in tax and fee increases in the 2009-11 budget Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed into law during his last two years in office. And that budget had the benefit of a massive infusion in federal stimulus funding, even as it put pressure on local governments to drive up property taxes. Those entities eventually hiked taxes on property by some $1.5 billion collectively – in part because of the budget Doyle signed.
Republicans took aim at the Democrats’ cold shoulder, calling the surprising move by Democrats not to engage in debate a “retreat.”
“For those people who have concerns about the budget, I think the Democrats did a disservice to them. They did not offer a credible alternative in any way whatsoever. All they did was listen to one person complain about the process mostly and some policy specifically,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
“When we were in the minority, we wanted to showcase why we thought we had better ideas. We came up with amendments even when we knew they wouldn’t likely be successful,” he said.
It originally appeared Democrats were posed to fight for scores of amendments. That fight was not to be. Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Milwaukee, said the fight would go on, through stand-alone bills.
Vos said he was proud of the GOP budget, which essentially freezes property taxes, nearly doubles Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed income tax cut, reduces borrowing compared to Walker’s budget proposal, spends $289 million more on traditional public education spending, freezes tuition and reduces spending for the University of Wisconsin System, and expands the school choice program statewide.
The signature issue of this budget, though, has been Walker’s rejection of Medicaid expansion. The state could have charged some $4.4 billion to federal taxpayers over the next few years to expand the BadgerCare program to cover Wisconsinites earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Walker has said he doesn’t trust the federal government to come through on its pledged full funding of a Medicaid expansion for three years and 90 percent after that. Instead, the GOP budget changes BadgerCare eligibility to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, around $12,000 for a single person.
Republicans say this allows tens of thousands of Wisconsinites that are living in poverty and on the BadgerCare waiting list to receive access to health care. Democrats contend the federal exchanges under Obamacare are not meant to cover families below 138 percent of the federal poverty level and that Walker’s move will leave tens of thousands uninsured.
Barca reiterated the Democratic positions that the state should take federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program, provide more funding for public education, eliminate expansion of the school choice program and increase funding for technical colleges.
The budget also loosens residency requirements for local employees, allows bail bondsman to do business in Wisconsin, creates a tax credit for parents who send their children to private school and increases funding for alternative to prison programs.
Assembly leaders had scheduled 12 ½ hours of debate on the state budget, but it passed shortly after noon Wednesday – with lawmakers having spoken on the floor for about two hours over two days.
“I expected to be sitting there offering amendments to fix the budget,” said Hulsey, who was instead on his way to his sailboat. “I was the only progressive to try and offer to fix the budget.”
Hulsey offered an amendment Tuesday that would have increased spending, most notably in public education, including the UW System – which faces a budget reduction after lawmakers and auditors brought to light more than $400 million in tuition reserves. Hulsey’s amendment also would reversed the provisions in Act 10 that required government employees to contribute to their health care and pension benefits.
The Madison lawmaker said he had another amendment planned that dealt with permits for high capacity wells.
On Tuesday, Republicans offered to hold off on budget language that would deny challenges to high capacity well permits granted by the state Department of Natural Resources until July 1, 2014. The idea is to develop and pass an alternate proposal before that deadline.
“I’m told other members wanted to bring up amendments, none of them stood up and did it. I was the only vote to improve the budget in a progressive way,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s calls seeking comment on whether Senate Democrats would employ the same tactics as their Assembly counterparts.
Alyssa Moyer, a spokeswoman in Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s office, however, said Senate Republicans were surprised with the Democrat’s decision not to debate in the Assembly. She said the majority looked forward to “healthy debate” in the Senate.
Moyer said she didn’t expect any amendments to be offered by Republicans.
“We feel pretty good about where we’re at,” she said, referring to Senate Republican support for the budget.
Democrats need only two defectors in that chamber to block passage of the budget. Several moderate Republicans have expressed concern about school choice expansion and Walker’s plan to nix Medicaid expansion. Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, has said he was uneasy with the structural deficit created in the budget.
In the Assembly, three Republicans voted against the bill – Reps. Steve Nass of Whitewater, Howard Marklein of Spring Green and Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake. Rep. Don Pridemore, R-Erin, didn’t cast a vote.
Kestell told Wisconsin Reporter there was no single reason he voted against the budget, but his main concern was the more than 90 policy items in the budget – including allowing collection of DNA at a felony arrest.
“Any policy issue in the budget was there because it probably couldn’t get the votes to get through the Legislature. That’s enough of a reason for anyone to vote no,” he said.
Kestell, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, though, said he thought the budget was a good deal for taxpayers and that it “dramatically improved” the education portion of Walker’s budget.
Contact Ekvall at [email protected]