September 13, 2017 | MacIver News Service
[Madison, Wis...] After 11 hours of debate heavy on Democrat-led shaming, recriminations, vilifications and fact smashing, the Republican-led state Assembly passed a $75.7 billion budget with generous spending increases for K-12 education, another round of in-state tuition freezes, and the death of several taxes.
The 2017-19 state spending plan, which passed on a vote of 57-39, saw five Republican defectors join the 35 Democrats in the lower house. The bill now moves onto the Senate, where, as of late Wednesday, it faced an uncertain future with the defection of three conservative senators.
Democrats turned much of Wednesday's floor session into "segregation" day, accusing Republicans of creating a pre-Brown v. Board of Education system in the Racine Unified School District for a provision that would allow RUSD collar communities the right to decide whether they want to remain in a failed school district.
Rep. Therese Berceau (D-Madison), made it clear who the minority party was trying to reach in their stream of partisan diatribes against Republicans and their budget.
"To take care of something for the newsroom, 'rigged, rigged, rigged,'" Berceau said just after 10 p.m., as the late TV newscasts were getting underway. It was a common mantra - the Republican-led budget is rigged in favor of the rich to the detriment of the poor, class warfare chestnuts the left is so fond of.
For good measure, she added that Democrats and Republicans are from different planets, and Republicans "are the aliens."
At the end of a very long day, all the speeches and grand-standing was for the TV cameras and not much more. This Republican-led budget passed with few defectors, as was expected with an Assembly controlled by the largest GOP majority since the Eisenhower administration.
Republicans focused on the expansive tax cuts, increased services, and substantive government reforms including a full repeal of the state prevailing wage. Democrats plugged their noses and voted against a budget bill they despise.
"We know one thing for sure, not one Democrat will vote for this bill," said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha).
The budget passed by the Assembly eliminates not one, not two, but three different taxes. The Forestry Mill Tax, the Alternative Minimum Tax, and a soda tax are swept away in this document. It holds the line on property taxes, and increases funding for local road maintenance without raising gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.
Democrats introduced 18 separate amendments to the budget - some spanning just a page or two, and others containing 50 or more pages.
They weren't just amendments tinkering around the edges. Many contained substantive spending, providing a peek into what the debate might look like if liberals held the majority. Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) pointed out the costs of those amendments.
Running tally: so far democrats have introduced $1.037 BILLION of increased costs to taxpayers. We are less than two hours into debate.— John Nygren (@rep89) September 13, 2017
Eleven amendments dealt with the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program (OSPP) and Racine Unified School District (RUSD). OSPP was written into law in the last budget and would have allowed a special superintendent to implement reforms in a handful of the worst-performing schools in the state.
One provision added by the Joint Finance Committee would give the troubled RUSD a year-long pass from OSPP, provided they comply with certain requirements. The motion's language opens the door to a potential referendum down the line, allowing the villages within RUSD to split off and create their own school districts.
Democrats argued that such a move would increase racial segregation in the area. Some drew comparisons to landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson. Others still, such as Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), claimed the plan would mark a new era of racial segregation.
Members on both sides of the aisle spoke at length about education. Democrats repeated the notion that K-12 education budgets have been slashed year after year. Nygren called for a fact check on that number, and MacIver delivered.
Transportation was the sticking point between Assembly Republicans, who wanted more sustained revenue (gas tax increases and/or vehicle registration fee hikes) and less bonding, and Senate Republicans who sought more bonding and no tax hikes. Walker's transportation plan, rejecting tax increases in a time of budget surpluses, won the day. The transportation battle is a big reason why the budget is nearly two and a half months past due.
Vos called the transportation compromise his "one great disappointment."
"We should have done more, but in a time of political compromise we got as much as we could," the speaker said, calling out "intransigent folks" in the "smaller house," referring to the Senate.
While legislators knew the budget would pass the Assembly floor before gaveling in, its chances in the Senate is another question. As debate raged on in the Assembly, the Senate GOP met in a closed caucus, hoping to find the 17 votes needed to pass the bill.
Three Senate conservatives also released a document outlining their objections to the budget. At the beginning of the day, Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) declared that he would not allow anyone to hold the document "hostage," saying that the Assembly would take only technical but not substantive amendments.
Vos reiterated that position at the end of the long debate.
"We will not be coming back next week," he said.
Now, with the budget out of the Assembly, the ball is in the Senate's court. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said Wednesday that he did not yet have the votes to pass the budget bill, but he was still planning on taking up the vote Friday morning.