By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly on Tuesday began debating a budget plan that Republicans were seeking to revise to boost its chances of passage, but the proposed changes don’t address some of the most contentious proposals.
A final vote was expected Wednesday in the Assembly, with the Senate slated to take up the bill on Thursday. The budget must pass both houses in identical form before heading to Gov. Scott Walker, who has the ability to make more changes through his extensive line-item veto authority.
The $70 billion budget would cut income taxes by $650 million over two years, expand statewide private school vouchers currently only available in Milwaukee and Racine, reject a federally funded expansion of Medicaid, and permit the selling of public properties.
“I am proud of what we’re doing,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a news conference in his office, along with Republican Majority Leader Scott Suder and Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget committee.
Vos outlined two significant changes the Assembly would be voting on later Tuesday. One would delay a provision that would make it easier for big water users to get permits to drill high-capacity wells. Another would remove caps on a property tax credit program benefiting disabled veterans.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he hoped changes being made in the Assembly would satisfy concerns raised by some Senate Republicans and lock up their votes. Sen. Dale Schultz, the most vocal Republican critic, hadn’t seen the Assembly changes.
“I have no idea exactly what’s in it,” he said before the Assembly began debate on the budget. “I imagine whatever’s necessary to get the budget passed is in it.”
Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, announced on Monday he was voting against the spending plan, in part because it creates a projected $500 million shortfall at the end of the 2015-2017 budget cycle. He and 10 other Assembly Republicans had offered a letter raising objections to various provisions.
“If you are a conservative in Wisconsin and you choose not to vote for this budget, I cannot see a scenario where you would ever vote for a budget,” Vos said. The budget gives Republicans 95 percent of what they wanted, and any more than that can’t be reasonably expected, he said.
The high capacity wells provision was one of the most controversial items added to the budget by the Joint Finance Committee.
The language would block anyone from challenging high-capacity well applications and permits by arguing the state Department of Natural Resources didn’t consider the cumulative impact of the well and surrounding wells on the environment.
But the Assembly planned to delay the change until July 1, 2014. Vos said it was his hope that the Legislature would revisit the issue between now and then.
High-capacity wells have long been a contentious issue in Wisconsin. They’ve come to the forefront again in recent years with the growth of businesses that use vast amounts of water, such as sand mining and factory farms.
Republicans said the budget provision simply reinforces the DNR’s position that it has no power to take the effect of multiple wells into account when approving applications. Democrats and environmentalists, though, said the prohibition would leave citizens without a way to force the DNR to consider the big picture of multiple wells depleting groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.