Two-year spending plan now in Gov. Walker's hands, but it's unclear at this point when he'll sign it

MADISON -- The state's nearly $73 million, two-year spending plan is now in the hands of Governor Scott Walker. The Wisconsin Assembly approved the budget early Thursday morning, July 9th with a 52-46 vote. The Senate passed the budget Tuesday with an 18-15 vote.

Some of the highlights of the budget include a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System, the borrowing of $850 million for road construction projects (far less than Governor Walker's proposed $1.3 billion), and an expansion of the school voucher program -- allowing more money to be shifted from public schools to private schools.

Twelve Republican lawmakers voted against the budget, citing concerns over such things as school funding levels and borrowing to pay for roads. This was the most Republican opposition Walker has seen, according to the Associated Press.

Republicans say this budget creates new education opportunities by lifting the voucher limit, and that they take pride in limiting borrowing.

Critics say this budget is another attack on education that abandons common sense.

It is unclear at this time when Governor Walker will sign the budget.

"This budget, I'm glad that for the third budget in a row, we're not solving problems by raising fees or raising taxes," Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) said.

Democrats say that comes with a cost -- pointing to a $250 million cut to the UW System. Critics say that could've been avoided had Republicans accepted $300 million in federal Medicaid money.

"Solving all our problems by accepting federal money is not the knee-jerk solution. Let's look what we can do to cut costs and be smarter with what we have and we can talk about that in the future," Rep. Kooyenga said.

"To be clear, about 25% of all the money we take to run the state of Wisconsin comes from the federal government -- so to say we shouldn't take money from the federal government, that it's not reliable, when it's a quarter of our budget for roads and everything else, it's just insincere," Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said.

Democrats are also railing against increased funding for choice and charter schools that comes at the expense of public schools.

"You have so many parents who make the intentional choice to send their kids to public schools. My parents intentionally put me in Milwaukee Public Schools, so I think it puts those parents at a significant disadvantage," Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) said.

The budget will also affect drivers. In order to avoid borrowing more than $1 billion as Governor Walker proposed, Republicans chose to delay transportation projects statewide, including the Highway 45 portion of the Zoo Interchange construction project.

"I would've liked to have seen us look more at the department when it comes to ways to scale back spending instead of focusing strictly on the construction jobs themselves," Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) said.

Here are some ways the budget could affect Wisconsin residents:


— Public school funding: It wouldn't be cut by $127 million as Walker proposed, but there wouldn't be much more money. Funding would be flat the first year of the budget and go up by about $69 million in the second year, but schools aren't being given the authority to increase spending. That means if a district does get more aid, it will have to divert it to lowering property taxes unless voters approve a special referendum.

— Vouchers: More students who meet income qualifications would be able to attend private voucher schools because the current 1,000-student statewide enrollment cap changes to no more than 1 percent of a district's total students. That would increase 1 percentage point a year for 10 years until there is no cap. Money to pay for voucher students would come out of public school aid. Also, students with disabilities who are denied open enrollment in another public school district would be able to use a voucher for private schools.

— Ratings: A new five-star system would have no sanctions for poor performers. Federal law currently requires schools to take the same standardized test, but Wisconsin would seek a waiver to allow for schools to choose between three and five standardized tests to measure performance.

— Civics test: Starting in the 2016 school year, high school students would have to correctly answer at least 60 of the 100 questions on a civics exam before graduation. They could retake the test until they pass.

— Sports: Home-schooled students would be able to play sports and participate in extracurricular activities at their local public school.

— Milwaukee schools: 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.


— State would borrow $850 million for road projects, down from Walker's $1.3 billion proposal. That would mean delays in major highway projects and resurfacing and reconstruction work.


— Several 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, and there are no increases in sales or income taxes.


— The law that sets a minimum salary for construction workers on public projects like road building and schools would be repealed for local governments but remain for state projects.


— Family Care and IRIS programs that strive to keep elderly people and those with disabilities out of nursing homes could be reshaped to allow for-profit managed care organizations to compete with networks of nonprofit groups that currently provide long-term care and ordinary medical care.


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


— The university system's budget would be cut by $250 million and make it easier to fire tenured faculty. Also, faculty would have less of a role in making decisions. In-state tuition would be frozen over the next two years.


— Fees for Wisconsin state parks would go up by $3 for annual admission and by $1 for daily admission. Camping fees for residents would increase $3 to $5 per night depending on a site's popularity; out-of-staters would pay an extra $5 to $8. The cost of an annual trail pass would go up $5. The fee increases will help offset the end of tax support for state parks.

— There could be more places to backpack, ski or snowshoe. The budget committee authorized the state's stewardship program to borrow $9 million per year for land acquisition. That's down dramatically from $19.3 million next year and $22.2 million in each of the following fiscal years through 2020, however.

— It would cut 17.5 researcher positions from the Department of Natural Resources' Sciences Services Bureau, which has worked on issues such as pollution and mining. The bureau would have 12.85 researcher positions left.


— Republicans eliminated Walker's plan to provide $55 million in Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. grants to regional groups for loans to businesses 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, as 60 third-shift tower guard positions across 10 prisons would be eliminated, saving nearly $6 million. Those employees would be moved into other vacancies.


— Would loosen the industry to allow payday lenders to offer financial advice and sell insurance, annuities and other related products. Those who oppose the late-added provision say it would make it easier for predatory lenders to exploit the needy.


— Counties couldn't force companies that are building oil pipelines to purchase additional insurance, a provision that would Canada-based Enbridge Energy finish work on an expansion that has been held up for months in Dane County.


—Factory and retail employees would be allowed to volunteer to work seven straight days, a change from current state law that says those workers must get at least 24 consecutive hours of rest for every seven-day stretch.