18-15 vote: Senate passes $73B, two-year spending plan; Assembly to vote Wednesday

MADISON -- The Wisconsin Senate has passed the budget, sending the $73 billion two-year spending plan to the state Assembly.

The budget passed on an 18-15 vote, with Republican Sen. Rob Cowles joining all Democrats in voting against it.

Republicans voted down a series of Democratic amendments during more than eight hours of debate, including attempts to increase funding for public K-12 schools and to eliminate a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System.

Republicans defended the budget, which will keep property taxes flat, require drug screenings for public benefits recipients and expand the school choice program.

Democrats say the budget sets the wrong priorities and will weaken public education and the university system.

Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chair of the budget-writing, Joint Committee on Finance issued the following statement after the Senate approved the 2015-17 budget.

"I am pleased we were able to continue to improve the state budget.  By modifying the prevailing wage law, Wisconsin's local governments will be able to make the bidding process fair and save taxpayers money.

This budget doesn't raise income, sales, or property taxes and keeps Wisconsin's property taxes on a downward trend.

This plan bonds at the lowest level in at least 20 years while still protecting the completion of the Zoo Interchange and funding needed for higher education buildings for chemistry labs and nursing training facilities.

We invested more money in our public K-12 schools in this budget than the previous budget.  We are not going to give up on children stuck in failing Milwaukee public schools.  We are targeting education reforms to where they are needed the most.  This budget provides a life-line for children and families stuck in perpetually failing schools.

We listened and learned during the public hearings throughout the state.  We saved SeniorCare, protected the IRIS program, and protected Medicaid.  This budget moves Wisconsin forward."

First for the Senate in Madison Tuesday came a vote on changes that would have limited access to government records.

Those changes would have made drafts of bills and certain communication, including emails, exempt from open records requests.

After a wave of criticism from both liberals and conservatives, Republican leaders backed off those changes before taking up the budget.

"The fact they could even think they could try to change our open records laws and then turn around 48 hours later and say 'no not really. We didn`t mean that' is ridiculous," Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said.

Democrats sharply criticized the initial proposal to limit access to government drafts and communication records.

Republican leaders said the changes were only meant to modernize the law and protect the privacy of citizens communicating with their lawmakers.

"I think it`s part of the statute that hasn`t been visited in many, many years and technology has changed. I think it`s something there are many different entities that want to see if there`s something that can be done," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald says it's a discussion worth having, but adds that the discussion may never happen.

"If you didn`t do this and if it wasn`t part of the budget, you would probably try and address it through a separate piece of legislation in the fall, but with the environment being as tough as it is right now, I don`t know if it`ll ever get there," Fitzgerald said.

The Legislature's finance committee slipped the language into the budget late Thursday night that would have shielded nearly everything state and local government officials create from the open records law. The move created so much criticism that Walker and Republican leaders announced on Saturday that the language would come out of the budget.

Senate Republicans introduced an amendment Tuesday wiping out the changes. The body added the amendment to the budget on a 33-0 vote.

After days where no one would admit they helped draft the proposed changes to the state's open records law, FOX6 News learned Tuesday afternoon that staff members from both Governor Walker's office and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's office were involved in initially writing the changes.

"Was I there when it was being put together? Absolutely," Fitzgerald said.

Governor Scott Walker's office issued this statement to FOX6 News:

"Legislative leaders let us know that they were interested in making changes to the open records law.  In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes.

Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation.  This allows for robust debate with state agencies and public employees over the merit of policies and proposed initiatives as they are being formed, while ensuring materials related to final proposals, as well as information related to external stakeholders seeking to influence public policy, would remain fully transparent.

Our focus remains on ensuring open and accountable government and we encourage public debate and discussion of any potential future changes to the state's open records law."

The Senate then passed a rollback of the state's prevailing wage law, which sets minimum salaries for construction workers on public projects.

The Senate voted 17-16 on Tuesday to repeal the law for all local government projects like those done by school districts and municipalities, while keeping it in place for state projects. The changes also replace state salary levels for the federal prevailing wage scale.

Republicans argued for eliminating the prevailing wage, saying it artificially inflates salaries paid to workers at the expense of taxpayers and freezes out smaller contractors.

But Democrats and unions oppose changing the law, saying it will lower wages, and hurt the middle class. Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), calls it a kick in the teeth to Wisconsin workers.

Republican senators then rejected the first two of 18 amendments Democrats have filed to the budget.

One Democratic amendment to increase funding for public schools was among the first voted down by Republicans.

"The numbers speak, because we're giving less dollars per pupil," Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said.

Democrats are also trying to force private voucher schools to comply with more laws that apply to public schools.

"We have to give options and opportunities for families to find a successful pathway. That`s what we`re looking for," Senator Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) said.

"79% of the students who took advantage of the statewide voucher previously did not attend a public schools," Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said.

Democratic proposal to restore a $250 million budget cut to the University of Wisconsin System was rejected in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Democrats argued Tuesday that it would irreparably harm the university system to move forward with the cut backed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature.

But Republicans in the majority voted down the Democratic proposal to restore the cut. They argue that new flexibilities given the university will help it deal with the funding cut.

The Assembly is to begin debate on the budget on Wednesday. The end of the fiscal year was last Wednesday, July 1st.

Here are some highlights of how the budget affects you:


— Public schools won't be cut by $127 million as Walker proposed, but they also aren't getting much more money. Funding would be flat the first year of the budget, then go up by about $69 million in the second year, but schools aren't being given the authority to increase spending over the next two years. That means if a district does get more aid, it will have to divert it to lowering property taxes unless a special referendum is approved by voters allowing spending to go up.


— There will be more opportunities for students who meet income qualifications to attend private voucher schools. The 1,000-student enrollment cap in the statewide program would be lifted, with the new lid set at no more than 1 percent of a district's total students, and that would increase 1 percentage point a year for 10 years until there is no cap. Money to pay for voucher students would now come out of public school aid.


— Students with disabilities who are denied open enrollment in another district would be able to use a taxpayer-funded voucher for private schools.


— Wisconsin schools would be rated on a five-star system, but there would be no sanctions for poor performers. The state would also seek a waiver from the federal government to allow for schools to choose between three and five standardized tests to measure student performance. Federal law currently requires schools to take the same test.


— High school students, starting in the 2016 school year, would have to pass a civics exam before graduation. They would have to correctly answer at least 60 of the 100 questions in the civics section of the test required for U.S. citizenship, and they could retake the test until they pass.


— Home-schooled students would be able to play sports and participate in extracurricular activities at their local public school. Originally, the committee had also expanded that to private, virtual and charter school students as well, but they backtracked Thursday.


— In its last meeting Thursday, the budget committee removed a provision that would have made Wisconsin the first state in the country to allow anyone with relevant experience, including high school dropouts, to be licensed to teach noncore academic subjects in grades six through 12. They also removed a provision allowing anyone with a bachelor's degree to be licensed to teach in core subjects of English, math, social studies or science.


— The worst-performing Milwaukee Public Schools could be converted into independent charter or private voucher schools under control of a commissioner appointed by the county executive.


— Borrowing to pay for roads would be reduced from what the governor proposed by $350 million, leading to delays in major highway projects and resurfacing and reconstruction work. Ongoing work on the Zoo Interchange near Milwaukee would not be stopped, but a third phase of the project would not begin as scheduled.


— Several tax changes are in the offing, including increasing the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly by $550, delaying the full phase-in of an income tax credit benefiting manufacturers and farmers, reducing the alternative minimum tax, allowing teachers to deduct up to $250 a year for classroom expenses, and reducing taxes on hard cider. Property taxes would be held basically flat over the next two years.


— The prevailing wage law, which sets a minimum salary for construction workers on public projects like road building and schools, would be repealed for local governments. It would remain for state projects.


— Walker's calls to cut nearly $100 million from the popular senior citizen prescription drug program SeniorCare were rejected.


— Family Care and IRIS, programs that strive to keep elderly people and those with disabilities out of nursing homes, could be reshaped in a way that would allow for-profit managed care organizations to enter Wisconsin's market and compete with networks of nonprofit groups that currently provide long-term care and ordinary medical care. Opponents fear that would reduce options for enrollees and weaken the quality of care.


— Recipients of public aid programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits would have to undergo screenings for drug use that could subject them to drug tests later.


— The university system's budget would be cut by $250 million, it would be easier to fire tenured faculty, and faculty would have less of a role in making decisions under a weakening of the shared governance principle that national higher education experts say would make Wisconsin unique. In-state tuition would be frozen over the next two years.


— The state will continue to look out for students attending for-profit colleges. The budget committee rejected plans to eliminate the Educational Approval Board, a 71-year-old state body that regulates for-profit institutions.


— It will cost more to visit Wisconsin's state parks or hike along the state's trails. The budget would put an end to funding state parks with tax dollars and raise annual admission fees by $3 and daily admission fees by $1. Camping fees for residents would increase $3 to $5 per night depending on a site's popularity; fees for out-of-staters would go from $5 to $8. The Department of Natural Resources' secretary would have the discretion to raise those fees by another $5. Meanwhile, the cost of an annual trail pass would go up $5.

— There might be more places to backpack, ski or snowshoe. Republicans rejected Walker's plan to freeze land purchases through the state's stewardship program. However, the budget committee did reduce the program's borrowing authorization for land acquisition to $9 million per year, down dramatically from $19.3 million next year and $22.2 million in each of the following fiscal years through 2020.

— The DNR's board will still set the agency's policies. Republicans scrapped Walker's plan to strip the board of its powers and hand complete control of the agency to its secretary, a gubernatorial appointee.

— The DNR will keep paying to remove road-kill deer on the state's highways. The budget committee rejected Walker's plan to shift carcass removal costs to local governments.


— Businesses looking for a state-backed loan from a regional development organization will have to keep searching for other pots of money. Republicans eliminated Walker's plan to provide $55 million in Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grants to regional groups for loans to businesses. The committee made the move after a series of audits found WEDC has failed to track past-due loans, failed to follow state contract law and hasn't demanded proof from grant and loan recipients that they've created jobs.


— Prison towers would stand empty during the night. The budget eliminates 60 tower guard positions across 10 prisons to reduce third-shift staffing and save nearly $6 million. The state Department of Corrections has said anyone currently filling those positions would be moved into other vacancies.