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Walker’s priorities largely remain in budget

By Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Madison — Gov. Scott Walker’s priorities of balancing Wisconsin’s budget without raising taxes while also buying down the state’s debt remain largely intact under the two-year state spending plan expected to be forwarded to the full Legislature by the end of the week.

Republicans who control the Joint Finance Committee have agreed with Walker’s general approach to eliminating the state’s $3 billion budget shortfall while they have broken with him on some issues such as changing the popular SeniorCare prescription drug program.

Democrats in the minority are casting the budget as prioritizing the wealthy over the middle class. They point to deep cuts to public schools, technical colleges and the University of Wisconsin System, the reduction of tax breaks for the poor and capping enrollment in a program designed to keep ailing senior citizens out of nursing homes.

“Balancing this budget on the backs of these folks is just the wrong way to go,” said Sen. Mark Miller, the Democratic minority leader.

The budget writing committee planned to finish its work Friday, with the full Legislature beginning debate sometime after June 13. After the budget passes both the Senate and Assembly, which are controlled by Republicans, it then would head to Walker. It takes effect July 1 and runs for two years.

The fight over public workers collective bargaining rights could come into play during budget debate if the state Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on whether the bill legally was passed this year and can take effect. Lawmakers have said they might add it to the budget.

Even without that fight, Democrats have found little to like in Walker’s budget.

“I’m just really appalled at the fact that we don’t have shared sacrifices,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca of Kenosha.

Apart from the political fights, the budget deserves praise for almost doing away with ongoing debt, said Todd Berry, director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Walker’s plan leaves the state with ongoing spending commitments of just tens of millions of dollars rather than more than $1 billion as it was coming into this year.

Miller said Republicans were benefiting from an improved economy, which also led to tax collections coming in $636 million more than expected when Walker unveiled his plan three months ago.

Even with the good economic news, Walker is following through on his campaign promises, Berry said.

“There are certainly not accounting tricks or large fund transfers like we saw in prior budgets. There are no broad, general tax increases,” Berry said. “In terms of the promises writ large on tax increases and transfers, he has done what he said he would do.”

The Legislature did approve restructuring the state’s debt and the Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday voted to reduce a tax credit for the poor, a move Democrats decried as an immoral tax increase. Democratic leaders Miller and Barca also pointed to numerous smaller fund transfers, tax breaks benefiting corporations, and the cuts to education as signs that Republicans are prioritizing the wealthy over the middle class.

Republicans have signed off on a roughly $800 million cut in aid to public schools and are expected to approve a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System this week. They rejected Walker’s plan to save $15 million in the SeniorCare program by requiring participants to first sign up for Medicare Part D.

The budget also undoes several initiatives championed by Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. It phases out Doyle’s Wisconsin Covenant program, which guaranteed a spot in a Wisconsin college or university to middle school students who promise to get good grades and be good citizens. It essentially eliminates public funding for state Supreme Court candidates, diverting the money to instead pay for educating the public about another Republican priority — requiring photo identification to vote.

Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie said the budget protects taxpayers, reformed and improved government services, and set the stage for Walker to fulfill his promise to create 250,000 jobs in the state by 2015.

The governor, who closely has worked with Republican lawmakers, was pleased with work to date by the committee, Werwie said. Walker has not said whether he would use his broad veto authority to reverse any of the changes already made to the plan.

More on the state’s budget

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