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Local lawmakers comment on newly adopted budget

Clockwise from top left: Sheila Harsdorf, Kathleen Vinehout, Dean Knudson, and John Murtha. Photos submitted

Last Thursday after 13 hours of debate in the Assembly followed by nine hours of debate in the Senate, the Wisconsin Legislature adopted a $66 billion, two-year budget bill.

The budget, awaiting Gov. Scott Walker's signature, takes effect July 1.

Identical bills passed the Assembly on a 60-38 vote and the Senate on a 19-14 vote. No Republicans voted against the bill. No Democrats voted for it.

Early last week the Legislature's nonpartisan budget office, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, reported that the budget bill will leave the state with a $300 million surplus.

The Fiscal Bureau also figured the budget would cut taxes by a net of $23.6 million over the next two years. But state fees would increase by $111.3 million, with most of that increase coming from an expected 5.5% annual tuition increase for the University of Wisconsin System in each of the next two years.

"In these challenging economic times, I am pleased that we have passed a two-year state budget that addresses our $3.6 billion deficit and, for the first time in 14 years, eliminates our structural budget deficit," said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls).

"Most importantly to struggling middle-class families, we were able to balance our budget while maintaining a property tax freeze," said Harsdorf.

Vinehout: Budget reflects wrong values

A budget is a plan reflecting values, and through this budget, the Republican majority shows it values tax breaks for its friends and road spending over education and other programs that benefit ordinary people, said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma).

"This budget makes historic and drastic cuts in local schools, job training, universities and local government. The budget ties the hands of local officials forcing them to cut services people need and leading to layoffs, closed programs and big changes in our schools," said Vinehout. "But this hurt does not have to happen. We are not broke. There is over $1 billion in new spending in this budget. The Republican leaders told us they have no choice but to make these cuts. But they had lots of choices.

"Those choices clearly told us what they value. What they think is important to the people of Wisconsin."

And, Vinehout says, because the economy is improving, tax receipts have increased and there is more money to go around.

"By making the tough decisions, we balanced the state budget without raising taxes, raiding funds or burying future generations in debt," said Harsdorf.

Those tough decisions included cutting funding for public schools, the state university system and local governments.

The budget trims local education funding by $800 million over the next two years and limits the ability of school districts to make up the difference by increasing property taxes.

It also cuts University of Wisconsin funding by $250 million, calls for $500 million in cuts in Medicaid and puts an enrollment cap on a program designed to keep senior citizens out of nursing homes.

Murtha: 'Promises were kept'

"Last November Wisconsinites overwhelmingly chose a new direction for their state and today promises were kept," said Rep. John Murtha (R-Baldwin) in a statement last Thursday.

He said the new budget "boldly addresses our fiscal problems and balances our budget without raising taxes, raiding segregated funds, or using one-time federal dollars."

Murtha added, "The era of responsible and financially sound budgeting has finally come to Wisconsin."

Knudson: 'New way of doing business'

"It's a completely new way of doing business in Wisconsin," agreed Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson). He said that after decades of adopting budgets with expenses higher than income, the Legislature has approved a balanced budget.

Much of the 13 hours of debate in the final hours before the Assembly budget vote was taken up with minority amendments, said Knudson. Those proposed amendments, if they were all adopted, would have added $2 billion in spending, he said.

"That would have led us right back to leaving a shortfall for the next Legislature to deal with," said Knudson. None of those proposed amendments carried.

"There's pretty much acceptance at this point that 'business as usual' is not acceptable anymore," said Knudson.

Citing cuts in school and university funding and programs to benefit the poor, Democrats have called the budget an attack on the middle class.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Knudson. "That's a spin. Most people know better than that."

In these lean economic times, the middle class appreciates attempts to control taxes and government spending, said Knudson.

He said the budget's effect on local governments varies widely.

"Most local officials understand the basic situation here," said Knudson, explaining that nearly all state revenues come from either the income tax or the sales tax, which are directly affected by economy.

"When the economy is down, we bring in less," he said. In the last few years the Democrats increased the tax rates, but even with those higher rates, in the last two years the state has taken in less revenue, he said.

"That's the first time in history that has happened."

When the state takes in less money, there's less to pass on to local governments, said Knudson. "So shared revenues must go down. There's no other way."

He said the new limits on collective bargaining will go a long way toward helping school districts and counties deal with lower aids.

Knudson said the Assembly was, though, able to reduce the levels of cuts to town road aids from those proposed by Gov. Scott Walker. Still, towns will find themselves with a gap to fill and that will be tough.

"There's no way to sugarcoat it," said Knudson. "There's not enough money to go around."

Vinehout disagrees.

"Our economy is beginning to recover. Tax receipts have improved," she said, responding to new budget forecasts. Vinehout added, "An improving economy means more money to go around."

The new budget, she said, actually brings in new money.

"There are three major sources of new money," said Vinehout. "Improvements in the economy have increased revenue estimates; this budget increased spending in some areas, like Medicaid, leading to more federal dollars; and increases in taxes and fees bring in new money."

Vinehout also criticized Republicans for leaving bills unpaid. She pointed out that the budget restructures $337 million in debt payment that would have come due.

"This debt is refinanced not to gain a lower interest rate but to completely avoid the payment coming due this coming year," said Vinehout.

She said according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the refinanced debt will be repaid over 20 years, costs the state $89 million in new interest costs.

"The budget is a plan reflecting our values," summarized Vinehout. "Republican leaders value tax breaks for their friends and lots of spending on roads - many new roads.

"They added money to Medicaid, and I share that value. I would add money to eliminate the waiting lists for FamilyCare. I would take back the money they shifted from schools and job training to really big road projects (in southeast Wisconsin) and put that money back into our local communities.

"The tax breaks do not benefit the middle class. The money that supports our local communities does."

Vinehout said she learned before the Senate debate began that no budget amendments would be accepted in that house.

Therefore, she said, she will turn several of the amendments she would have proposed into bills to be introduced later.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.