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Wisconsin state budget passes committee, heads to full Legislature next week

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MADISON, Wisconsin — The Legislature's finance committee finally completed its revisions to Gov. Scott Walker's state budget plan after a five-week delay early Friday morning, clearing the way for votes in the full Senate and Assembly.

Republicans who control the panel made a series of final changes to the $70 billion spending plan during a 12 ½-hour marathon session, including cutting $450 million for road projects and reducing taxes for married couples. They punted, at least for now, on two major issues that had led to the impasse: a $500 million financing plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena and changes to the prevailing wage law, which sets minimum salaries for construction workers on public projects.

Both of those issues are expected to be debated separately, perhaps next week, but some conservative senators say they won't support the budget if it doesn't have at least a partial repeal of the prevailing wage law. The Assembly is expected to take up the budget on Wednesday or Thursday, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he doesn't have the votes to get the budget out of his house.

"It's not a perfect document, but we made it as good as we could," said committee member Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh. "We made hard decisions. We made good decisions."

Minority Democrats on the committee ripped the budget.

"It is a budget about attacking the ideas and values that I would say make us all Wisconsin," Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said. "What you've done makes me sick."

The centerpiece of the Republican's final revisions was a plan to fund road projects. The committee decided to allow $500 million in borrowing initially for road work, with $350 million more to be approved later. That would be $450 million less than what Walker originally called for. The plan would delay $350 million in major highway projects and $100 million in resurfacing and reconstruction projects around the state.

Democrats balked at the plan, offering instead to re-instate tying the gas tax to inflation. They argued that was a more sustainable way to pay for roads, but Walker has said he won't support any gas tax hike.

That proposal was rejected on a 12-4 party line vote, before the Republican road plan was adopted on a 12-4 vote.

Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said the plan was better than what Walker originally proposed because it reduces the reliance on bonding.

"But ... it will hurt job creation and economic development, the mobility and safety of the traveling public," Goss said, "and it will end up costing taxpayers more in the future when the state finally addresses the realities of an aging highway infrastructure system."

Other revisions included:

— Increasing the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly by $550, a move that would reduce state tax collections by $21 million a year.

— Delaying the full phase-in of an income tax credit benefiting manufacturers and farmers, saving the state nearly $17 million.

— Reducing the alternative minimum tax, a move that would benefit 37,626 taxpayers, or 1.2 percent of all filers, with the average decrease at $645, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The majority of beneficiaries, roughly 86 percent, earn more than $100,000 a year. That would cost the state $24 million a year.

— Allowing teachers to deduct up to $250 a year for classroom expenses, matching state law with the federal limit, costing the state $1.1 million a year.

— Reducing taxes on hard cider, which are now the same as wine, to the lower rate charged on beer.

— Exempting nearly all records created by state and local government officials, including bill drafts and communications with staff, from Wisconsin's open records law.

That change prompted Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, to warn Republicans that "the legacy of this committee is going to be one of secrecy. History will not shine kindly on us. I guarantee you this will be the campaign issue, and some of you will not be back next cycle."

The committee recessed around 9:15 p.m. so Republicans could debate among themselves whether to insert a prevailing wage repeal into the budget before taking a final vote. The GOP members ultimately decided not to add a repeal, reconvened the committee around 11:30 p.m. and voted about 40 minutes later to send the budget on to the Legislature on another 12-4 party-line split.

The new fiscal year began Wednesday, but there is no government shutdown without a new budget in place. Funding simply continues under levels set in the previous budget.


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