By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Wisconsin’s 2013-15 state budget is headed back to Gov. Scott Walker.
The Senate passed the two-year, $70.1 billion budget just after midnight Friday, following 12 hours of debate, which included a political protest and eight arrests for old time’s sake.
The bill passed, 17-16, with all Democrats and Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, voting against it. The bill now goes to Walker, who has partial veto power over the spending plan, for his signature.
Walker hailed the final product, saying he was “proud of the Legislature’s work, which truly invests in Wisconsin and our priorities.”
“Because of our sound fiscal management and tough, but prudent, decisions over the last two years, we are now able to provide nearly $1 billion in tax relief for Wisconsin families and businesses, more money for our public school system and additional education options for parents across our state,” the governor said in a statement.
When Walker’s says the “Legislature’s work,” he means the majority party’s work. This bill was all Republican, all the time, with the GOP toppling Democrat amendment after amendment in the Senate. The day before, Democrats in the Assembly refused to debate on or offer amendments to a budget they considered a bygone conclusion.
Walker got much of what he asked for in the budget, which Democrats complained was full of fodder for a governor more interested in a presidential run than good state governance. Most notably, the final budget product accomplished Walker’s key initiatives — rejecting more than $4 billion in federal money to expand the state’s Medicaid program, expanding parental school choice statewide, cutting income taxes north of $650 million (Walker asked for roughly $350 million), and holding property taxes nearly flat.
The Republican-controlled Legislature increased education spending by $150 per pupil for each of the next two years, adding $289 million in spending – a 1.5 percent increase next year, and 2.8 percent increase the following year. Lawmakers reduced bonding from Walker’s budget, commissioned a study of Common Core State Standards, and cut spending and froze tuition at the University of Wisconsin System.
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, called the tuition freeze “one of the gems in the budget.”
“When you look at ‘how did we get there’ -— the two main driving factors were Medicaid and education,” said Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. Those were the two places that got the biggest investment and I’m very proud of that. The third area is the ($650 million) income tax cut.”
Unlike Assembly Democrats, who a day earlier chose not to debate the budget, their Senate counterparts drafted more than 50 amendments and engaged Republicans in 12 hours of debate, with some Democrats wanting to go longer.
The amendments included expanding Medicaid, providing a property tax cut in place of the income tax cut, funding treatment and alternatives to prison programs at $75 million and reinstating collective bargaining rights.
None of the amendments passed the Republican-controlled body. Schultz, though, voted with Democrats on a number of them.
Legislative leaders had agreed on a debate time limit of 12 hours, but Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, contended Republicans ate up too much of that time. A vote on the budget was then blocked by a procedural move until after midnight Friday.
When they came back, Larson closed the Democrats’ night. He said the Legislature took Walker’s “extreme budget and made it even more extreme.”
“We tried to steer our state in a positive direction,” he said.
Both sides engaged in robust debate, and toward the end of the night Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, congratulated Democrats on “making some significant points in some instances” and making Republicans “uncomfortable” on some of the more divisive items in the budget.
Democrats, for example, read quotes from Republican senators on expanding Medicaid and rejecting school choice expansion.
“We have senators on record in their district saying the expansion would be a good thing and we should take it,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, referring to Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls.
They also attacked Walker, speculating on ulterior motives embedded in his budget.
“This (rejecting federal dollars to expand Medicaid) is being done because of the presidential dreams of one man,” said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.
The budget certainly bolsters Walker’s conservative credentials, if they needed any boosting. In successive budget cycles, he’s held property taxes flat, decreased business and income tax rates, expanded the voucher school program and took on public-sector unions.
There was some question whether Democrats could attract one more moderate Republican in addition to Schultz to vote against the budget, with several GOP lawmakers having expressed concerns about the $500 million structural deficit, statewide expansion of school vouchers and 94 non-fiscal policy items in the budget – including collecting DNA at felony arrest, a real sticking point for the more libertarian wing of the party.
Schultz said his vote against the bill was due to “loyalty to Gov. Walker,” who campaigned on not putting policy into the budget. “Our party said so and my constituents have reminded me of that fact,” he said.
Mainly, though, Schultz knocked the school choice expansion proposal, which he called “the beginning of the dismantling of public schools” and “just another middle class entitlement program.”
He labeled the budget “too far removed from representing the interest of the common men and women I represent.”
No other Senate Republicans felt the same — at least according to how they voted.
Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, ripped Democrats and their 2009-11 budget in a 20-minute speech decrying a $2.1 billion tax hike going “to the black hole of government.”
“They took money out of the wallets and the purses of this state, but they did more than that,” Ellis said. He rattled off tax and fee hikes, budget gimmicks and education cuts, until Larson stood up to ask him to move onto this budget.
Ellis, though, said Walker’s last budget got the “economic ship out of the water. Now we’re starting to rebuild the ship of economic development … The tax cut is fair, it’s across the board … And we aren’t going to apologize for giving the people back their money.”
In a flashback to 2011, eight protesters were arrested after unsuccessfully trying to storm the Senate floor. Capitol Police detained them. They weren’t even protesting the budget. They were demonstrating against a recently passed bill that requires women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion.
“Focus on jobs, not vaginas,” several of them chanted from the gallery. The protesters face disorderly conduct charges.
Contact Ekvall at [email protected]