MacIver News Service | September 15, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis…] After 36 hours of wondering whether Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald would have the votes to pass the 2017-19 state budget, four of five Republican senators who had been leaning no came through with yeses Friday night to push an amendment-free spending plan over the goal line.

The Republican-controlled Senate, on a mostly party-line vote of 19-14, approved the $76.5 billion budget with the support of Sens. Robert Cowles, Chris Kapenga, Steve Nass, and Duey Stroebel. Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) joined the 13 Democrats in voting no on the spending plan, which Craig has long said spends too much money.

After months of fits and starts, the two-year budget is nearly in the books. It now awaits the governor’s signature.

The budget eliminates multiple taxes, holds the line on property taxes, and continues the University of Wisconsin-System tuition freeze into its fifth and sixth years.

The four reluctant Republicans switched to the “yes” column by late afternoon after Gov. Scott Walker pledged vetoes of certain provisions, many of them inserted at the last-minute, that the conservative lawmakers couldn’t stomach.

“I didn’t think the budget was a bad budget, but I thought it could be better,” Stroebel, R-Saukville, told MacIver News Service. “I feel very good about some of the vetoes the governor is going to be making. I think it’s going to fashion this budget in more of the way that I think will be good for the conservative cause and good for the state of Wisconsin and all of its residents.”

The fiscal hawks, billed as “the Three Musketeers” by Nass, say they have received pledges that Walker would veto provisions extending the power of the shadowy, Public Finance Authority. The measure, among other things, would have granted the tax-free, risky bond peddler the force of eminent domain.

Walker also pledged a partial veto that will permit school districts to conduct referendums only on regularly scheduled and general election days.

A partial veto would reinstate the governor’s provision removing the energy efficiency exemption to school district revenue. The popular school program, critics say, has been abused and is a money grab without accountability to the taxpayer.

Stroebel gets the federal swap language that he has sought. A Walker partial veto would delete the requirement that the cost-savings measure first be studied, instead giving the state Department of Transportation the flexibility to enact a fed-swap policy.

And the governor has pledged to use his veto pen to more speedily implement repeal of the state portion of prevailing wage, which artificially inflates the cost of taxpayer-funded state building and highway projects.

Gone, too, would be a last-minute provision changing the makeup of the state Transportation Projects Commission. Walker assured the senators he would partially veto the measure, deleting the changes but leaving the independent engineering study included.

“I do believe some of those things that the governor will be vetoing out were kind of driven by special interests, and I’m glad that those are out because that certainly wasn’t where I was coming from nor the vast majority of our Senate, if any of them,” Stroebel said.

Less than an hour after the Senate passed the budget and sent it on to the governor’s desk, Walker, on his way home from a week-long economic development trip to Asia, released a longer list of what he intends to ax from the spending plan. The list, so far, includes the requests from the senators, as well as a provision in the budget that would provide $1 million in so-called state Capitol basement renovations, sought by the Assembly. And the governor said he would veto a measure that specially releases quarries from onerous local restrictions.

“Governor Walker is vetoing this item because he believes changes of this magnitude should be addressed in separate legislation,” the administration press release states. All vetoes, including full summaries, will be included in the governor’s veto message.

Walker praised the GOP-led Senate for finalizing a budget that’s 2 1/2 months overdue, a budget bogged down by internecine battles between Republican leadership driven in large part by philosophical differences on paying for Wisconsin’s transportation system.

“Thank you to the members of the State Senate for approving our budget that will put more actual dollars into K-12 education than ever before,” the governor said in a statement. “We are providing historic increases in funding for our public schools and we are lowering property taxes for the typical home at the same time.”

 


The budget pumps $639 million over current spending levels into K-12 education, while eliminating the state portion of the property tax and delivering more money for local road work. To the disappointment of Milwaukee-area Democrats and Republicans alike, the budget doesn’t provide funding for the third phase of the Zoo interchange or the East-West Interstate 94 mega projects.

Craig said he was satisfied with the positive provisions of the budget, but it “fails in its primary function – to appropriately limit the size, and thus the role, of government in our lives.”


As Ronald Reagan once said, ‘As government expands, liberty contracts,” the senator added.


While Walker’s vetoes may take away some Assembly and Joint Finance Committee provisions, Fitzgerald gave Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) what he had asked for. As word spread about the Republican senator holdouts, Vos warned the Senate not to send his house back an amended budget.


It took some doing, but the Senate majority leader, with the help of the governor, was able to deliver the votes he needed for clean passage.

Cowles, considered to be a hard no on the budget earlier in the week, was wooed by veto promises and better-than-expected structural deficit numbers. He said his vote also was a matter of striking while the political iron was hot.

“I came to the conclusion that any kind of horse-trading between the houses would end up with more (non-fiscal) policy in the budget. I had fought that all along,” he said. The Green Bay-area Republican has long been adamant about limiting the budget to only fiscal items. “I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a scenario where we could get any more out. At some point it’s done and I hope the governor vetoes the things.”

Cowles argued for the removal of the quarry protection language.

The minority Democrats, not surprisingly, hated just about everything in the Republican-dominated budget – even the things they usually like, such as significantly more spending for education. It wasn’t nearly enough, they said. Sure, it’s a record amount, but it doesn’t make up for the money cut from education – and elsewhere – in the dire state budget days of 2011, Dems explained.

Democrats forwarded 17 amendments, and spent much of the nearly nine-hour debate pitching them while castigating the Republican plan. They pushed changes (and much more money) to education and health care (another you-should-take-the-“free”-Medicaid amendment). And they decried legislation denying Milwaukee a crack at more funding. Each amendment was rejected on a party-line vote.

Two days after their colleagues in the Assembly rolled out the narrative of a “rigged” Republican budget, Senate Dems coined the “Foxconn First” rhetorical theme.

The budget was written and debated amid what has been billed by supporters as a “once-in-a-century” economic development opportunity – Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn’s plan to build its first North American Liquid Crystal Display plant in southeast Wisconsin. The Legislature this week finished off passage of a $3 billion incentives bills for Foxconn, which has said it would create 13,000 jobs on a $10 billion capital investment. Walker is expected to sign the bill Monday.

“We pay Foxconn first,” Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) declared during Friday’s debate. “We took care of Foxconn ahead of the people of Wisconsin.” Pushers of that narrative failed to note that many of the incentives are tied to job creation and construction of the manufacturing campus. They left out the part about the anticipated 10,000 construction jobs that would be needed, the thousands of spin-off jobs, and the billions of dollars added to the economy.

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said the budget was one of the best she’s seen in her long legislative career.

“If you say yes to this budget, you are supporting the largest investment in K-12 education in state history. If you say yes to this budget, you are saying you want to put more money in the pockets of your constituents,” Darling said at the start of Friday’s debate.

The budget next goes to Walker’s desk for his signature, expected some time next week.

This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.