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Assembly passes state budget

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (from left), Sen. Alberta Darling, Rep. John Nygren, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos answer questions in Madison on June 5. The Assembly passed amendments to the state budget Wednesday. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

By Dan Shaw

The state Assembly passed the budget early Wednesday afternoon by a 55-42 margin.

Three Republicans — Reps. Steve Nass, Howard Marklein and Steve Kestell — joined all 39 Democrats in opposition. It now heads to the Senate, where Republicans have an 18-15 majority. Debate there was to begin Thursday.

Among the construction-related amendments in the budget, the Assembly approved an amendment Wednesday that would slightly alter proposals to make single-prime contracting the default method of awarding state building contracts and to allow state assets to be put up for sale, among other things.

Much of the amendments, approved on a 59-36 vote, pertained to school vouchers. But several provisions would make small changes to matters related to the construction industry.

One would allow the state to be held liable under certain circumstances for damages incurred by subcontractors working on a state-commissioned project. The change came as part of the budget’s call to have most state projects worth more than $185,000 awarded using a single-prime system, in which only one contractor works directly with the state.

Currently, the state defaults to using a multi-prime system, meaning it maintains direct relationships with mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors on construction projects. Proponents of the change to single-prime contracting have argued that it would make the task of managing large projects easier.

Another proposed change to the budget would require the Department of Administration and the state’s Building Commission to explain the methods they are using to ensure that any state asset they wish to sell will be sold in a “competitive and transparent” manner. The original budget proposal had said that assets such as power plants and dormitories could be sold in ways other than through a bidding process, but only if the alternative method chosen was transparent.

The amendment approved Wednesday would have the methods that are used to ensure transparency in sales presented to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which the budget would also give final authority to approve any asset sale.

The amendment would also require the Department of Transportation to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of any proposal to hire engineering consultants to work on any project worth more than $300,000. The limit is now set at $25,000.

Finally, the amendment contained a provision related to rules used to control storm-water runoff. The Joint Finance Committee adopted a rule last month that would put all local governments under uniform erosion-control standards, meaning they could not adopt erosion-control rules that were either stricter or looser than the state’s. The provision circulated Tuesday would allow local governments to be stricter than the state in their attempts to control storm-water runoff.

Absent from the amendment was a provision that would have allowed the Department of Natural Resources to set rules meant to keep protestors off a site where a mining company is undertaking exploratory drilling in northern Wisconsin. Representatives of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau had said Tuesday that such a provision would be in the amendment, but it was dropped on Wednesday.

The day before, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, had said Republicans planned to make no changes to the reforms that the current 2013-15 draft budget calls for making to the state’s unemployment-insurance system. A group of lobbyists representing the construction industry had met with Republican leaders earlier in the day in an attempt at persuading them to eliminate or modify the proposed unemployment-insurance changes.

Among other things, those changes would increase the taxes paid by companies that tend to cause the state’s unemployment system to pay out more than it takes in. The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has estimated the increase would cause the heaviest users of the system, many of which are construction companies, to pay about $32 million more a year after it takes effect in 2015.

— Follow Dan on Twitter and read his Capitolisms blog

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