Spending cuts hit education, UW, tax credits for poor
ASHWAUBENON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker signed his first budget Sunday, approving a plan that plugs the state’s $3 billion shortfall but slashes funding for public schools and the University of Wisconsin System.
Walker, a Republican, signed the two-year $66 billion budget at a private ceremony at a Green Bay-area manufacturing company flanked by Republican lawmakers from the area. The budget passed the Legislature without a single Democratic vote.
The spending agenda fulfills Walker’s campaign pledge to balance the budget without raising taxes. He released just 50 vetoes early Sunday morning, signaling the Republican-controlled Legislature had given him almost everything he wanted as lawmakers revised the document prior to signing. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, in comparison, issued 81 vetoes with the 2009-11 budget, his last before leaving office.
“As a state, we can choose to take the easy road and push off the tough decisions and pass the buck to future generations, or we can step up to the plate and make the tough decisions today,” Walker said in prepared remarks. “Our budget chooses to fix our problems now, so that our children and our grandchildren don’t face the same challenges we face today.”
Democrats derided the budget as an attack on middle class values, noting it cuts funding for public schools by $800 million, reduces funding for the UW System by $250 million and cuts tax credits for poor people.
“The theme of Gov. Walker’s budget is that the middle class pays more and gets less,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement.
But no matter how it’s spun, passage of the budget and Walker’s signing of it before the new fiscal year starts on July 1 is a significant achievement for Republicans who control both houses of the Legislature. They worked quickly to approve the budget before recall elections in August that could result in Democrats gaining a majority in the Senate and the power to block Walker and the GOP’s agenda.
The recalls stem from voter anger over Walker’s contentious plan to require most public sector employees to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. The plan, a key linchpin in Walker’s budget, also strips almost all of those workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Walker signed the plan into law in March after weeks of massive demonstrations at the state Capitol. Frustration over it is still running high over the changes; protesters have spent weeks disrupting budget deliberations in Madison.
Walker took the unusual step of holding the budget signing ceremony outside Madison on a weekend, but more than 200 protesters still found their way to Fox Valley Metal-Tech’s plant in Ashwaubenon just outside Green Bay. Holding signs calling Walker a “dirty rat” and banging on buckets, they heckled Walker’s guests as they pulled into the parking lot, shouting “Shame!” at them.
Inside, Walker took the equivalent of a victory lap. His aides set out coolers of water bottles for his guests and blared pre-recorded music for them, including Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America.”
A beaming Walker took the podium sans jacket and tie, with his sleeves rolled to his elbows. The crowd, about 100 strong, gave him a standing ovation. He launched into a 20-minute speech as Republican lawmakers from the area looked on from risers, touting that together they had ended a cycle of putting off tough budget decisions.
“Through honest budgeting, we are providing an alternative to the reckless tricks and gimmicks of the past,” Walker said.
“Be strong, Scott!” someone in the crowd yelled.
Walker left the signing without taking questions from reporters as John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” played.
The budget calls for a $70 million reduction in tax breaks for some who qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as limits on a homestead exemption for poor homeowners and renters, amounting to tax increases.
It also reduces the amount schools can collect from property taxes and other revenue combined, which translates into another education cut of about $800 million. While schools are seeing deep cuts, Walker’s budget extends tax breaks to manufacturers, multistate corporations and investors.
The budget also calls for $500 million in unspecified cuts to Medicaid programs, puts an enrollment cap on the popular Family Care program and increases spending on the state’s roads.
There are no sales or income tax increases and property taxes are held essentially flat over the next two years.
The budget also expands Milwaukee’s school voucher program to suburban schools in Milwaukee County and to the city of Racine, ends Doyle’s Wisconsin Covenant financial aid program for college-bound students and cuts aid for technical colleges by 30 percent.
Walker’s vetoes mostly amounted to technical changes, although he did ax provisions that would have allowed bail bondsmen to operate in Wisconsin, required all child care providers to submit to fingerprinting, and forced people to view politicians’ economic interest statements in person at the Government Accountability Board in Madison. Two other vetoes erased plans to let Milwaukee police to go on collecting their pay while they appealed their firings and would have changed the taxing mechanism on snuff tobacco from price to weight.
He also nixed a provision that would have allocated $10,000 for a website for the Wisconsin Aerospace Authority, which is working to develop spaceports in Wisconsin.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and his brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, seemed to shrug off the vetoes. Jeff Fitzgerald said he saw nothing that would cause Republicans to launch an override attempt.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said in a statement that the budget is packed with “misplaced priorities.”
“We are still left,” Miller said, “with no real plan to help all Wisconsinites prosper.”