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Walker’s budget proposal coming into focus (UPDATE)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

University of Wisconsin-Madison students come and go from the Education Building between classes at the public university in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. In the background is Bascom Hill and the Law Building. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a $300 million budget cut to the state's public university system and breaking it off as a public authority. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

University of Wisconsin-Madison students head out of the Education Building between classes in Madison on Jan. 27. Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a $300 million budget cut to the state’s public university system and breaking it off as a public authority. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Much about what Gov. Scott Walker planned to propose in his state budget remained unknown Monday, but that didn’t stop Democrats from blasting details that have come to light so far and arguing the second-term Republican is focused too much on pleasing a national audience at the expense of Wisconsin as he looks at a presidential run.

Walker was to release his roughly $70 billion, two-year spending plan on Tuesday night in a joint meeting of the Legislature to be broadcast live statewide. The budget faces a shortfall of between about $900 million and $2 billion by mid-2017, based on state agency spending requests. Walker will present a balanced budget proposal to the Legislature on Tuesday, but the big question is what he does to eliminate the projected deficit.

The budget touches the lives of nearly every person in the state. Walker will propose income and sales tax rates as well as funding levels for state and local governments, including K-12 public schools, the University of Wisconsin System, Medicaid and public benefit programs, prisons, economic development initiatives, roads and infrastructure.

Once introduced, the Republican-controlled Legislature will take the next four months putting its stamp on the plan before passing it and sending it back to Walker for his signature likely sometime in June.

While the bulk of Walker’s plan remains secret, he has released some details in advance of Tuesday’s speech.

Walker has said he will propose cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin System, about a 13 percent reduction, over the next two years while also freezing tuition. In exchange, Walker wants to give the UW System more freedom from state oversight and laws, a move that university officials have sought for years to give them greater control of their own operations.

Much of the debate in the Legislature is expected to focus on the size of the proposed cut and just how much latitude to give UW as it moves toward a public authority model.

A $300 million cut as Walker proposed will be devastating both to the university and the economy of the state, Democratic lawmakers argued at a Capitol news conference.

While criticizing that and other proposals Walker has made public, Democrats also pushed for their agenda, which includes raising the minimum wage and accepting federal money for Medicaid expansion under the federal health insurance law.

Walker is driven not by what’s best for Wisconsin but what will play well nationally as he bolsters his resume for a 2016 presidential run, said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee.

“He seems more concerned with Iowa primary voters than the state of Wisconsin,” she said, referring to the first presidential caucus vote in 2016. Walker last week announced formation of a tax-exempt committee to boost his presidential aspirations, a move that came as he hired more staff, gave a well-received speech to conservatives in Iowa and made the rounds in Washington, D.C.

Walker’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Walker has also said that he won’t propose raising any taxes or fees to pay for roads projects, rejecting a recommendation from his own Department of Transportation secretary to do just that. Instead, Walker wants to borrow $1.3 billion over the next two years for transportation projects, a 30 percent increase, while lowering the total amount bonded across state government and putting some early stage construction projects on hold.

Increasing roads bonding has been met with skepticism both from Republicans who control the Legislature and those in the construction industry who had been lobbying Walker and lawmakers for months to look at a variety of other options, including raising the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

Walker has also said he will propose requiring drug tests for Medicaid, unemployment and other public benefit program recipients, merging a variety of state agencies and borrowing $220 million to help pay for a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks.

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