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Republican lawmakers have been flexing their collective muscle in writing the two-year state budget slated for completion this month — rejecting and revising several of Gov. Scott Walker’s signature initiatives.

The action comes as Walker has increasingly spent time out of the state laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential run and as polling shows public discontent with key elements of the budget.

From creating a separate public authority for the University of Wisconsin System to funding cuts for public schools to halting state land purchases, the Republican-led budget committee has rejected numerous parts of Walker’s proposed budget for the two years that start July 1.

The committee has also adopted sweeping education proposals that go further than changes Walker proposed in his spending plan.

And though Walker made a historic proposal to borrow $1.3 billion to pay for transportation projects, Republican leaders have said the rank-and-file is unwilling to borrow that much, and Walker acknowledged Friday he would sign a budget without any borrowing if it was presented to him.

The increasing absence of Walker, who in his first term weakened union power and became the first governor to survive a recall, has created a power vacuum being filled by Senate and Assembly leaders, experts say.

“They’re treating him like a lame duck,” said UW-Milwaukee political science professor and former Democratic lawmaker Mordecai Lee. “They’re not afraid of him and don’t feel an obligation of solidarity.”

Kit Beyer, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for an interview.

A new dynamic

Even though Walker said Thursday that he calls his staff “12 to 15 times a day” checking on progress made on the state budget, his frequent travels have changed the dynamics in the Capitol, Lee said.

Where Republicans were once unified behind Walker’s lead, they’re now more willing to challenge him — the more normal relationship between a state Legislature and a governor, he said.

That departure is illustrated in the Legislature’s rejection of a $127 million cut to public school funding, said Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin.

Franklin said in the last two budget cycles, Walker had traveled around the state selling his budget proposals to the public and to lawmakers. This spring, he said, there’s been less of that, leaving lawmakers to lean more on public feedback that revealed the vast majority of those polled by Franklin opposed Walker’s proposed cuts to public schools and the UW System.

“Quite a bit of the criticism of the budget was coming from Republican lawmakers as opposed to just Democrats,” Franklin said. “This year, he has not been a visible, prominent spokesman for his proposed cuts to K-12.”

In fact, after public opposition to the education cut became clear and lawmakers publicly opposed it, Walker asked lawmakers to figure out how to restore it, Franklin said, which was a departure from Walker’s campaign-style advocacy for his budgets in the past.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick disputed the notion Walker’s involvement in the budgeting process is not as robust as before.

“As he has always done, Gov. Walker continues to meet and talk regularly with legislative leadership of both parties, as well as legislators of both parties, to discuss issues important to Wisconsin, as well as the budget,” she said in an email. “Gov. Walker is also in regular contact with executive staff, regardless of his location.”

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, said Walker has been effective and involved in the state budgeting process, pointing to his involvement in reaching an agreement on a plan to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, which was announced last week.

“I particularly don’t feel like there’s something I can’t get done because the governor is engaged in a presidential race,” he said.

Walker is not officially a candidate, but has said he would make his intentions known when lawmakers finish writing a 2015-17 budget.

With the arena deal finished, the remaining major issue for the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is how to pay for road projects. The committee has not scheduled a meeting for this week, and it’s unclear how close lawmakers are to an agreement on roads.

When the committee completes its work, the budget will go to the full Assembly and Senate, and then to Walker, who wields a powerful veto.

Proposals rejected

Lawmakers rejected Walker’s proposals to suspend land purchases under the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, make cuts and changes to SeniorCare, eliminate a state board that oversees for-profit colleges, make the Department of Natural Resources Board advisory, and merge state agencies.

They also used Walker’s budget as a starting point to expand his proposal to lift caps on school vouchers and to greatly expand the opportunity to open independent charter schools.

“I think it is clear that public opinion and legislator opinion quickly turned against his K-12 budget cut, but (lawmakers) still found approaches for voucher expansion and charter expansion,” said Franklin.

Walker proposed lifting the cap on the number of school vouchers available in the statewide program in a way that would likely result in each voucher being worth thousands less than they do today and come from state aid for school districts.

Republicans modified that plan to keep the expansion, and the funding mechanism, but also to secure a payment to private schools that isn’t less than current levels.

Lawmakers also scrapped Walker’s proposal to create a statewide charter school authorizing board to make way for a slate of new authorizing bodies including the UW System.

Still, the committee approved a number of proposals in Walker’s budget.

Those approvals include drug testing recipients of some public benefits; ending tax-fund subsidies for state parks; eliminating jobs in the Department of Natural Resources; and a rejection of expanding Medicaid with $345 million in federal funding.

State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.

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