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New state budget: 'Historic tax relief' or financial risk?

Local lawmakers' response to the Wisconsin Legislature's adoption of a new biennial budget seems subdued with the area's lone Democratic representative hoping that the governor will veto parts.

On a vote of 55-42, the Assembly passed the budget in short order last Wednesday after Democrats decided not to offer any amendments or prolong debate. Minority Leader Peter Barca was quoted as saying the spending plan is so bad there was no hope of fixing it.

After a 12-hour debate, senators voted 17-16 early Friday morning to approve the same version of the budget. Majority Republicans struck down a number of Democratic amendments and did not consider others.

The Legislature's budget, which now goes to Gov. Scott Walker who has line-item veto power, would cut income taxes for all tax filers by $650 million over two years, expand statewide private school vouchers available now only in Milwaukee and Racine, and tighten income eligibility under Medicare, diverting nearly 90,000 people into federally subsidized exchanges to buy insurance.

The budget approved by the Legislature also freezes tuition at University of Wisconsin campuses for two years, allows the sale of public properties, requires DNA to be collected upon arrest for a felony or conviction of any crime and allows bail bondsmen to operate in the state.

Never 100% perfect

"No budget bill is or ever has been 100% perfect," said Rep. Warren Petryk (R-Eleva). "Unfortunately, this nearly 1,500-page piece of legislation contains some items that I do not agree with, and a debate in the Assembly on these issues would have been welcomed."

But, said Petryk, after weighing "the good and the not quite as good," he felt the budget's positive points outweigh the negative.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) called the document "The Eat Dessert First Budget."

She said the tax cut for about 75 percent of filers -- which would save a person making $30,000 about $50 a year and someone making over $300,000 about $1,500 -- eliminates about $600 million of state revenue.

"Because spending is not reduced -- this budget spends $4 billion more than the last -- a half a billion dollar structural deficit is created down the road," claimed Vinehout.

She said budget writers built several hundred million in new tax collections, but a recent forecast by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve shows Wisconsin's economy contracting over the next six months. She said the budget increases the state's debt and doesn't put away enough money in case of another economic downturn.

Public money for private schools

Vinehout said a last-minute amendment would allow private for-profit schools to set up satellite schools across the state without the previous enrollment caps. She worried that the voucher schools would divert money from public schools.

"Public money for private schools has not proven to be an effective use of taxpayer dollars," said Vinehout. "The over 20-year-old program should be reevaluated with the same rigor applied to our public schools."

She urged the governor to veto budget provisions that she said "allow taxpayer-funded 'franchise' private schools to expand statewide without limits."

Petryk agreed that expansion of school choice should have been debated separately instead of being included in the budget.

"However," he said, "with only one vote to cast, I believe that the positive in this budget far outweighs the negative."

"I think the budget is very good, a remarkable turnaround from two years ago where we had the huge $3.6 billion budget deficit," said Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson). "With the economy gradually improving, our revenues were up and we actually had a surplus to deal with this time."

He added, "I think the best parts of this budget are the protection of the taxpayers, the way it's going to help us improve our economy, foster job growth. Property taxpayers will see continued control there -- little or no increase. Income taxpayers in all brackets will see a decrease as we simplified the code, eliminated loopholes and credit deductions and instead lowered all the tax rates."

Knudson, Petryk and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) also praised the additional funding for K-12 education.

"Though the funding may not be exactly what everyone was wishing for, it is an improvement over what the original budget provided," said Petryk. "(The Joint Finance Committee) passed a motion containing a $150 per pupil adjustment under revenue limits and an additional $150 increase in per pupil funding in categorical aid. This is a healthy increase for public education..."

Harsdorf, who is a member of the budget-writing committee, said she is pleased that the budget "makes taxpayers a priority" but still invests in education, health care and transportation

'Key investments'

"Even as there are inevitably provisions of any budget bill that I or other legislators may not support, this budget bill makes key investments while allowing taxpayers to keep more of their hard-earned money," said Harsdorf.

She said she worked with colleagues to provide more funding for public K-12 schools and encourage job creation by targeting the skills gap and boosting economic development initiatives.

"I am also pleased that we are able to provide historic tax relief to taxpayers and hold the line on property taxes," said Harsdorf. "We also advanced important improvements to public safety and victim services in the budget, including enhanced DNA collection from those arrested on felony charges."

There are very few things he doesn't like in the budget, but one of them is the collection of DNA when a suspect is arrested, said Knudson.

"My concern is that it infringes on the 4th amendment right of the accused," he said.

Rep. John Murtha (R-Baldwin) said the budget is "fiscally responsible" and funds essential state programs.

"In order to assist students, we increased public school funding by nearly $300 million and froze tuition fees in the University of Wisconsin System for two years," he said. "Technical colleges will also receive an increase in finical aid."

Murtha said the budget helps create a pro-business environment: "We have worked hard to keep Wisconsin moving forward and on the path to financial stability and economic growth."

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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