Joint Finance Comm. votes 12-4 to advance state budget to Legislature

MADISON — After a five-week delay, the Legislature's budget-writing committee has given final approval to a new two-year spending plan.

The Joint Finance Committee early Friday voted 12-4 with all Republicans in support and all Democrats against the $70 billion budget. It now heads to the Senate and Assembly for debate.

Once passed by the Legislature, it will go to Gov. Scott Walker, who can sign it or veto items he opposes. The Legislature has the option to override Walker's vetoes, or those items could be removed from the budget.

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.


— 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.


— All 132 members of the Legislature, their staff and those who work for legislative support agencies would be able to shield nearly all their communications and work material from the open records law. Currently available material, like bill drafts, would be kept secret. Nearly all records created by all other state and local government officials would be exempted from the records law as well.


— 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 Corporation 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.