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The Wisconsin Senate.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

After nearly nine hours of debate, Republicans in the Senate voted to pass the state's two-year budget late Tuesday night.

The Assembly is set to take up the $70 billion spending plan on Wednesday and send it to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature later this week.

Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez, was the only Republican to join Democrats in voting against the budget. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the document contained "an excessive amount of policy" items, pointing to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo that showed more than 100 policy provisions in the budget with little or no financial impact.

"Today the Wisconsin Senate advanced a bill that I believe our members can be proud of," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in a statement. "While there is no doubt that this was a difficult budget, it was also a responsible one; by making some tough financial decisions, we ensured that the interests of Wisconsin’s hardworking taxpayers were protected."

Debate stretched until nearly midnight, with two Republican amendments and 43 offered by Democrats. 

In a rare unanimous vote, every senator voted to abandon a set of provisions approved by the Joint Finance Committee last week that would have gutted the state's open records laws — including six senators who voted for them on the committee. 

Earlier that day, Walker's office acknowledged for the first time its role in drafting the proposed changes, after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters the governor's office had been involved.

The Senate also voted unanimously to scrap a set of proposed changes to the board overseeing the state's retirement system, which would have left the board completely made up of state lawmakers.

On a much closer 17-16 vote, Republicans approved a partial repeal of the state's prevailing wage laws as an amendment. Sens. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac, and Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, were the only two Republicans to join Democrats in voting against Sen. Frank Lasee's proposal.

The De Pere Republican's plan would repeal prevailing wage requirements for local governments and require the federal prevailing wage — rather than one set by the state — to be used for state-funded projects. The changes are set to take effect in January 2017 in order to give contractors time to prepare.

Every amendment introduced by Democrats failed on a party-line vote. Some were proposals the minority party has introduced before, like raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, accepting the federal Medicaid expansion and creating a state student loan refinancing authority.

Others addressed specific budget items.

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, introduced an amendment to delete a budget provision that would allow factory and mercantile workers to voluntarily work seven days in a row with no 24-hour rest period. The provision is modeled after legislation proposed by Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, in March.

"Really, you're going to go after the weekend? Really? You're going to side with Lumbergh?" Larson asked, referencing the boss from "Office Space" who repeatedly asked his employees to work on weekends.

Sens. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, and Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, voiced concerns that employers would pressure their employees to "volunteer" for weekend shifts under the new provision.

But Wanggaard and Gudex defended the proposal, saying it gives employees the opportunity to complete their work without running into restrictions.

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"I don't think this is a way to abuse anything," Gudex said. "It's a voluntary thing. If you don't want to do it, you don't have to do it."

Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, proposed an amendment to abandon changes expanding the authority of payday lenders slipped into the Joint Finance Committee's final "Motion #999" last week. 

With their expanded authority, payday lenders could offer financial advice to consumers, along with selling insurance and annuities. 

Democrats also tried to undo a change to the state's living wage provisions. The budget would replace all statutory mentions of "living wage" with "minimum wage." 

"I don't know what the hell we have against wages," Erpenbach said, criticizing both the living wage and prevailing wage changes.

In closing, Joint Finance co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, thanked her colleagues from the committee for their work on a "really tough budget."

"I am pleased we were able to continue to improve the state budget. By modifying the prevailing wage law, Wisconsin's local governments will be able to make the bidding process fair and save taxpayers money," Darling said in a statement.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.