overhead assembly chamber Capitol0089MPK20110615e-06152011162309.jpg
Members of the public wait in the gallery for a session of the Assembly to begin at the Capitol on Wednesday, June 15, 2011. M.P. KING – State Journal

The state Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's state budget about 3 a.m. Thursday, sending it to the state Senate, which was taking it up Thursday.

After 13 hours of contentious debate, the Assembly passed the plan 60-38 with all Republicans and one independent for it and all 38 Democrats against. The 99-member Assembly has one vacant seat.

"We're doing the job we were elected to do," Republican Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder said. "We balanced the books and we did it without a $5 billion federal government bailout."

The budget must pass in identical forms before heading to Walker for his consideration. The Senate is controlled by Republicans 19-14.

If passed, the budget would take effect July 1.

The Assembly finally began its long and contentious debate on the budget after 2 p.m. Wednesday, some 27 hours after they were originally scheduled to start.

Lawmakers immediately launched into heated accusations. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, opened by accusing Republicans of raising taxes on the most vulnerable in Wisconsin while spreading myths about "shared sacrifice." He and other Democrats said GOP leaders care more for businesses than people and are committing an "assault" on the state's working families. Republicans accused Democrats of ignoring the financial realities facing the state while pushing for higher taxes. They praised Gov. Scott Walker's budget for bringing fiscal sanity to the state.

The audience quickly got involved. Soon after lawmakers began their opening statements, several protesters in the gallery were carried out.

As state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, praised Republicans for making "tough choices" to balance the budget, a woman named Jenna Pope rose to speak, accusing the GOP of promoting an "immoral, unethical and illegal" agenda.

"You refuse to listen to your people. You refuse to negotiate. You are trying to silence us," Pope said before being carried out by state troopers.

The $66 billion spending plan for 2011-2013, introduced by Walker in March, aims to balance an estimated $3 billion budget hole. It reduces the state's structural deficit, cuts more than $1 billion from public schools and the University of Wisconsin system and creates new laws that hold property taxes practically flat.

The budget also takes some $500 million from Medicaid programs, and places an enrollment cap on Family Care, a program aimed at keeping poor, elderly people out of nursing homes.

The plan has been praised by conservatives who say it is the first honest budget in years. But Democrats say it balances the budget on the backs of the middle class, poor people, students and seniors.

Democrats railed against a reduction in tax breaks for some who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and poor homeowners and renters.

State Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, depicted the budget as a case of "CEOs versus the average Joes." She said the biggest winners of this budget will be "the slumlords, the corporate developers, Walker campaign contributors, bounty hunters ... probably grave diggers and coroners."

"Today's decisions will haunt you for the rest of your careers," Grigsby said.

State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said there was no truth in the budget.

"The only truth is that this is an assault on the middle class," he said.

But Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said it was the Democrats who were engaging in "class warfare." He said they were the ones who abandoned middle-class families last session.

"We're in tough times, folks. Very tough times," he said. "And this is the right budget for the times."

Republican leaders worked feverishly in closed-door meetings on budget details most of the day on Wednesday, delaying the start of the floor session by more than five hours. Several provisions were removed at the last minute, including a plan to expand voucher schools to Green Bay and a proposal to give back about $37 million in federal grant money awarded to the UW System. That proposal would end UW-Madison's support of WiscNet, a statewide Internet provider.

Vos called the decision to back away from returning the federal money a compromise that should lead to a better approach. The amendment, released after 7 p.m., would allow those who now have WiscNet to keep it.

The deal adds a requirement that the state's Legislative Audit Bureau do an audit of the program by January 2013.

"We want to run this by our legal staff, but we believe this gives WiscNet enough flexibility to provide service and access to their current members," said John Krogman, chief operating officer for the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology.

Krogman said the division welcomed the audit plans.

The removal of a voucher school program for Green Bay was announced Wednesday morning before the floor session began, and detailed in the amendment released that night.

"At the end of the day, the conversation that got started in Green Bay needs to continue," said Jim Bender, a lobbyist for the pro-voucher group School Choice Wisconsin. "There were people who wanted to see that conversation continue before taking legislative action."

He said the move "hits the pause button, not the stop button" on the expansion of voucher schools.

Expanding vouchers is supported by many Republicans, and vouchers would still spread to Racine and throughout Milwaukee County schools under the budget. They currently are allowed in the city of Milwaukee. The plan would also loosen the income requirement to participate in the voucher program

The GOP amendment also removed a requirement that public works projects costing more than $100,000 would need to be done by private contractors. And it said some local transit workers, like bus drivers, would be exempt from limits to collective bargaining facing nearly all of the other public employees in the state, with the exception of firefighters and most law enforcement officers.

While the budget debated on the floor differs little from the plan first introduced by the governor, Republican leadership also put their stamp on the measure. They broke with Walker over cuts to the SeniorCare prescription drug program, money for recycling proposals and the governor's bid to revamp UW-Madison by splitting it from the UW System.

Republicans also voted to undo proposed changes to the state's eminent domain law that would have made it harder for landowners to challenge the government's taking of their land, and they changed the budget to ensure that public officials' ethics statements can be emailed to constituents instead of only being available for viewing in person in Madison.

Also, schools ordered to get rid of race-based nicknames by the state would have until Jan. 15, 2013, to comply instead of within 12 months in most cases.

"I believe this budget met the challenge," said Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. "The economy's going to grow and hopefully the problems, the mistakes we made in this budget, we can fix in the fall."

Democrats offered dozens of amendments for the budget, including a proposal to restore the planned GOP cuts to education funding, but all failed.

The education plan, similar to the Democrat's previous "Save our Schools" proposal, would replace about $800 million in school funding in part by repealing an expansion of school vouchers and millions in corporate tax breaks.

But the amendment got a cool reception from Republicans in the Assembly chamber.

"It's the rainbow and unicorns amendment," said Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake.

The Assembly gallery was packed early in the day, but the crowd had dwindled by the evening.

Capitol Police said that as of 6 p.m. three people in the gallery had been removed and charged with disorderly conduct. A fourth person was arrested for trying to bring drug paraphernalia into the Capitol.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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