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Wisconsin Assembly approves state budget, Senate up next

June 30, 2021 GMT
MOVE PHOTO AT 10:30 CT MONDAY JUNE 28 - FILE - In this July 3, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers arrives to sign the budget at the State Capitol in Madison. Wisconsin legislators are poised to take their final votes on the state's next two-year budget and send it on to Gov. Tony Evers. The Assembly has scheduled a floor vote for Tuesday, June 29, 2021. The Senate is expected to follow suit on Wednesday. The centerpiece of the spending plan is a $3.3 billion income and property tax cut. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)
MOVE PHOTO AT 10:30 CT MONDAY JUNE 28 - FILE - In this July 3, 2019, file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers arrives to sign the budget at the State Capitol in Madison. Wisconsin legislators are poised to take their final votes on the state's next two-year budget and send it on to Gov. Tony Evers. The Assembly has scheduled a floor vote for Tuesday, June 29, 2021. The Senate is expected to follow suit on Wednesday. The centerpiece of the spending plan is a $3.3 billion income and property tax cut. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans moved a step closer toward finishing their work on their $87 billion state budget Tuesday, pushing the spending plan through the Assembly and on to the Senate.

The Assembly passed the budget 64-34. Four Democrats — Reps. Deb Andraca, Steve Doyle, Beth Meyers and Don Vruwink — joined Republicans in voting for the document.

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The vote sends the spending plan on to the Senate, which is expected to take it up Wednesday. Senate approval would send it on to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

The governor will then have to decide whether to sign the plan that’s largely been stripped of his biggest priorities, or take the highly unusual route of vetoing the entire plan. Evers has broad power to line-item veto the budget, which he did two years ago after the GOP-authored plan passed with no Democratic votes.

The centerpiece of the two-year budget is a GOP-authored plan to cut $3.3 billion in income and property taxes, made possible largely by the state’s unprecedented $4.4 billion surplus. The budget also would end an eight-year freeze on University of Wisconsin System tuition and hold K-12 funding largely flat. All in all, the budget would spend about $4 billion less than Evers proposed.

Republicans erased hundreds of Evers’ policy proposals, including legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, expanding Medicaid, restoring collective bargaining rights for state workers, raising the minimum wage to $10.15 by 2024 and creating a so-called red-flag law that would allow judges to seize guns from people they deem dangerous.

“(The budget) reflects the priorities of all of Wisconsin, not just liberal Democrats in certain parts of the state,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said during a news conference ahead of the vote in that chamber. “I want to say thank you to the citizens of the state. We know exactly what you want in this budget.”

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said during his own news conference ahead of the vote that Republicans care more about denying Evers victories than doing what’s best for the state through the budget.

“Their goal is try to do everything possible to obstruct, oppose and undermine Gov. Evers,” Hintz said. “(They’re) more interested in trying to set the governor up for failure in an election year.”

Democrats are particularly upset with how Republicans have handled school funding. Evers, a former state schools superintendent, had proposed giving K-12 schools $1.6 billion over the biennium. The GOP killed that proposal and instead gave schools $128 million over the two-year budget, less than 10% of what Evers proposed.

Republicans have defended the move, pointing to the $2.6 billion in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief aid that Wisconsin schools will be receiving. But local school officials say it’s irresponsible to fund their operations with one-time dollars, use of that money is limited and not all schools benefit as much as others.

The GOP moves have raised questions about what Evers will do. Evers, who is up for reelection next year, has not ruled out vetoing the entire budget, a step not taken since 1931. That would likely delay passage of a budget for months.

Evers issued nearly 80 line-item vetoes in 2019. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with conservatives and overturned three of them, including one that shifted funding for school buses to electric vehicle charging stations, one that expanded the range of vapor products that could be taxed and one that changed who qualified for local road improvement funds. That ruling did not limit Evers’ veto power in this budget.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback didn’t return a message inquiring about the governor’s plans. According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo, the state would lose $2.6 billion in federal pandemic relief aid if Evers vetoed the entire budget.

The chamber also passed a bill on a voice vote with no debate that would create a new legislative human resource office that might be able to keep complaints about lawmakers secret.

The bill states that the office would observe “the confidential nature” of records, investigations and disciplinary actions.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders believes the language would allow the office to keep records secret. James Friedman, an attorney for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the wording doesn’t create an exemption to the state’s open records law but he foresees fights over interpretation.

The bill comes a year after The Associated Press and three other news organizations sued the Legislature seeking access to all records related to sexual harassment made against Staush Gruszynski, a Democratic legislator at the time. The groups sued after Pat Fuller, then the Assembly’s chief clerk, denied the organizations’ requests for the records.

The lawsuit is still pending.

The Assembly also approved a bill that would eliminate a state tax on business equipment. The budget includes $202 million for local governments to offset the lost revenue. Republicans amended the bill Tuesday evening to backfill the state transportation fund with $20 million this fiscal year and $44 million every subsequent fiscal year to offset the loss of tax revenue from railroad equipment.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1