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It has to be done, say area Republican lawmakers

From left, Wisconsin State Rep. John Murtha, State Senator Sheila Harsdorf, and State Rep. Dean Knudson.

It's early in the process and analyses of Gov. Walker's 2011-2013 budget aren't complete, but local Republican lawmakers say the budget bill and its predecessor, the repair bill, are a good start.

Questions were e-mailed to the office of Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, who represents part of Pierce County and is one of 14 Democratic senators who crossed into Illinois to avoid a vote on the budget-repair bill. Last Friday Vinehout's chief of staff replied that the questions had been received and the senator would get them, but no response was received as of Tuesday.

"The budget proposal tackles our state's chronic budget woes directly by reducing spending by over 6 percent while protecting taxpayers from increased taxes and fees," said Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson. "We need to stop spending more than we have, so the budget puts an end to the raids on segregated funds like the gas tax money."

"It isn't easy at all, and there were some hard choices, some hard cuts," said John Murtha, R-Baldwin. But, he said, both Walker and GOP lawmakers are doing what Wisconsin citizens asked for when they voted last fall.

"Everyone is talking about taxes," said Murtha. "They can't afford any more taxes."

He said the budget, unlike budgets in previous years, doesn't rob segregated funds to pay other bills and doesn't raise taxes or fees.

"We're making hard cuts," said Murtha. "This is extremely different than what we've done in the past...Hopefully we're on the right track."

Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, agreed. Last November, she said, voters sent a very clear message to lawmakers: Cut government spending, get the state's fiscal house in order and stop "using the credit card."

"This is about taxpayers," said Harsdorf. "It's about creating a government taxpayers can afford. This is the first serious effort in the past 10 years to balance our budget."

The budget bill is 1,345 pages long. Harsdorf said she hadn't had a chance to read the entire document in the few days since its release.

"We have just begun. We had a very brief briefing on it," said Harsdorf, a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, the first legislative committee that will tackle bill.

The next step is for the Fiscal Bureau to prepare an analysis, which will be presented to Joint Finance, which will then hold 4-5 public hearings probably starting in late March, said Harsdorf.

After the hearings, Joint Finance will begin going through the bill issue by issue, holding votes and making changes. That amended bill then goes to both houses with the goal of adopting a final bill around the end of June.

"Typically the target has been the 4th of July," said Harsdorf.

"Obviously it just came out so there's still a period of understanding and finding out what's in it," said Harsdorf, who expects a lot of the feedback during the hearing process.

"Local governments will receive less state aid again this year," said Knudson of the budget bill. "The impacts will vary, but all levels of government will need to think 'out of the box' to find creative, innovative ways to provide quality services at lower costs."

He added that the stalled budget-repair bill contains tools to assist school districts and local governments balance their budgets.

"Asking public employees to share in their pension and insurance costs will be a start but local governments will still need to find other cost savings," said Knudson. "Without the other reforms in the budget-repair bill, local governments may have no choice left except layoffs."

Murtha agreed that the budget-repair bill gives local governments tools to use to adjust for reductions in state aid.

"All of this is still a proposal," said Murtha. "It's a starting point."

But, he said, it's a good start.

"In a state without any money and without a credit card, we have to do something," said Murtha. He said the governor's proposals aren't ploys of any kind: "There's just no money."

Murtha said the budget-repair bill, which mandates increased employee contributions to health insurance and pension costs "puts local government control back where it should be."

Response from people back home is mixed, said Murtha.

"There are people that are not liking this at all, that feel offended," he said. "There are others that are tickled to death."

"I continue to hear from teachers who are very concerned about its impact," said Harsdorf. "I'm also hearing from people who say this has to be done."

"The number of phone calls and e-mails has been overwhelming at times," said Knudson of reaction to the budget-repair bill. "During the first week the calls were primarily public employees strongly opposed to the idea that (they) should pay half the cost of their pension contributions and more for health insurance. We did little else but listen to and meet with teachers and others complaining that the change was unreasonable.

"But the quiet majority in Wisconsin found that concept to be fair and reasonable, correcting an imbalance that had developed between private sector workers and public employees."

He said that in the second week the discussion changed and is now about "the broken process that created that imbalance."

The mood in Madison

"There were literally thousands and thousands of people in the Capitol for 14 days," said Harsdorf, adding that the building wasn't designed and isn't staffed to accommodate that many people round the clock. That, she said, created health hazards.

Normally, she said, while those working in the Capitol can stay longer, visitors are asked to leave at 6 p.m. A judge is allowing regular access to the building this week with the understanding that visitors have to leave after normal business hours.

Harsdorf said security has been increased with the help of outside law enforcement agencies, including officers from Pierce, St. Croix, Polk and Dunn counties.

While he hasn't felt personally threatened, Murtha said there has been "a lot of screaming, hollering, pouting, shouting" in and around the Capitol.

"They're trying to intimidate us," he said of protestors who have lined the halls and slept on Capitol floors.

But, said Murtha, overall the situation hasn't been too bad and with 60,000 people flooding the Capitol area, there are bound to be some incidents.

"Madison today is the scene of noisy demonstrations in defense of the status quo storming around quietly determined representatives (who are) standing up for taxpayers who demand common sense reforms," said Knudson. "We hope that out of the tumult and conflict comes progress."

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.