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Gov. Scott Walker set a $20 million limit on the cost of legislation that crosses his desk this spring, which could be a tight squeeze for legislators who are already considering bills totaling more than three times that amount.

Walker told reporters Wednesday that if the amount of new spending the Legislature adopts in the current session is over $20 million, “it starts to be a bit of a challenge.”

“We want to keep it pretty conservative,” Walker said. “If we’re going to invest significant new dollars into public education (in the next budget) we need to start with a good base.”

Walker signed the 2015-17 budget in July. The latest projection from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau is that the state will end the biennium with about $135 million.

State law requires a minimum balance in the general fund of $65 million, leaving the Legislature only about $70 million to use on new spending or tax cuts.

Two years ago, heading into an election year, the Legislature had about $1 billion at its disposal, which it used on a package of property and income tax cuts.

That $70 million figure doesn’t include bills already passed by the Legislature and awaiting Walker’s signature, including a bill that makes several changes to the state’s century-old civil service rules, which is expected to cost about $6 million.

Walker specifically mentioned Wednesday wanting to pass a college affordability package he announced last month.

The package, which includes a tax deduction for student loan interest, is expected to cost about $6.4 million in the current biennium.

Several bills, including the college affordability package, that carry a total net cost of $63 million have been forwarded to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee for review.

The committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on 10 bills with a price tag of $8.5 million.

They include a package of bills supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, aimed at combating Alzheimer’s and dementia that would cost about $3.3 million, but not the college affordability package.

Vos didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who on the night of Walker’s State of the State address warned about the state’s tight finances, said in an emailed statement that Republicans are keeping an eye on the fiscal impact of each bill.

But he wouldn’t say there’s a limit on how much he’s comfortable spending.

“The question is not how much more we intend to spend, but which bills are priorities and which will pass the Legislature,” Fitzgerald said.

He did not provide additional details on which bills are a top priority.

Sen. Jennifer Shilling, the Senate minority leader from La Crosse, and Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, the Assembly minority leader, criticized the budgeting by Walker and legislative Republicans.

“Governor Walker’s decisions to turn down over $300 million from the federal government for BadgerCare for this biennium alone and $23 million for rural broadband access among many others mean that now he will not even be able to fund the weak Band-Aid, election-year proposals that we’re seeing Republicans put out to cover up their record of neglect on core issues,” Barca said in a statement.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version incorrectly stated the budgetary impact of bills before the Joint Finance Committee. The amount in bills before the committee Thursday was about $8.5 million to the state's general fund. The story also incorrectly included in that amount operation of the state's managed forest land program, which is funded from a separate account. The amount in bills referred to the committee as of Wednesday was about $56 million.]


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.