The state Assembly, working around an afternoon bomb threat that emptied the state Capitol and interrupted debate, was poised to pass a $73 billion budget bill Wednesday night and send it to the desk of Gov. Scott Walker, days before he announces his bid for the White House.
Walker’s office hasn’t indicated how, if at all, he will use his expansive veto authority on the 2015-17 budget. Walker tweeted Wednesday that he spent the morning reviewing the budget with staff.
Walker is scheduled to announce his 2016 presidential candidacy in Waukesha on Monday.
What state officials called a “credible bomb threat” delayed Wednesday’s Assembly debate on the budget. Police evacuated the Capitol at about 3:40 p.m., then used dogs to search the building. They found no public-safety threats, allowing the Assembly session to resume at about 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Republican budget appeared to be on a glide path to Walker’s desk after the state Senate passed it late Tuesday. GOP proponents of the budget say it’s good for Wisconsin taxpayers because it doesn’t increase taxes.
“Today is an exciting day for the Legislature to be able to finalize the budget that we’ve worked on so hard since the first part of February,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said shortly before debate began.
The two-year spending blueprint contains a bevy of changes that appeal to the conservative base of the GOP. It expands the availability of private-school vouchers, partially repeals the state’s prevailing wage and requires drug testing of some public-benefit recipients.
Democrats called the budget a failure for Wisconsin schools, colleges and universities.
“This bill is an outrage for education,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
The two-year budget holds school spending flat in its first year, then increases it by $69 million in the second year, but doesn’t give school districts authority to increase spending.
It significantly expands the state’s private-school voucher program by lifting its statewide enrollment limit. Republicans say the program gives educational options to families stranded in struggling school districts. Democrats have decried it as a bid to undermine public schools.
The University of Wisconsin System receives a $250 million funding cut from the budget. It also removes faculty tenure protections from statute and weakens the system’s shared-governance principle. Supporters of those changes say they give more power to the System’s Board of Regents to operate efficiently. Critics say they’re harming the system’s national image and eroding its ability to attract top faculty talent.
Passage of the state budget has been delayed for weeks, eclipsing a June 30 deadline at the end of the fiscal year. The holdup was caused by lawmakers’ quarreling on the prevailing wage issue, as well as disagreement on how to fund highway projects and by a plan to provide public funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena.
The final budget excludes the Bucks arena deal, which will be taken up separately. It cuts $450 million from Walker’s proposal to fund highway projects, which will cause delays for some projects, possibly including the Verona Road/Beltline project in Madison.
The addition of the partial prevailing wage repeal to the state budget, which happened during Tuesday’s Senate session, helped break the weeks-long budget stalemate. With that addition, the budget repeals prevailing wage for projects funded by local governments and applies the federal, instead of the state, prevailing wage to projects funded by the state. One of the supporters of the measure, Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said it could exempt as much as 90 percent of public projects from the prevailing wage that now are subject to it.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate removed a widely disparaged provision in the budget that would have dramatically weakened the state’s open records law.
The final budget reshapes Family Care and IRIS, programs that strive to keep elderly people and those with disabilities out of nursing homes. It allows for-profit managed care organizations to enter Wisconsin’s market and compete with networks of nonprofit groups that currently provide long-term care and ordinary medical care.
State parks would no longer be funded with tax dollars under the budget. The ranks of senior scientists at the Department of Natural Resources would be cut roughly by half.
The budget cuts taxes for some by increasing the standard deduction by $550 for married couples filing jointly, and by aligning the state’s alternative minimum tax with its federal counterpart. To pay for the tax cuts, the phase-in of a tax credit for manufacturers and farmers would be delayed.
Democrats offered a slew of amendments to the budget during Wednesday’s debate that were rejected by the Republican majority. Several of the amendments would have authorized Wisconsin to accept additional federal funding by expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care law. Others would have boosted school funding, restored the UW System funding cuts, helped students refinance college loan debt, reversed the changes to Family Care and IRIS, or removed the budget’s deletion of the Complete Streets requirement that bikes and pedestrians be accounted for in road projects.
Also Wednesday, the Assembly passed a bill that would give state troopers a 6 percent raise.
The body approved the measure 94-0. The Senate passed the proposal on Tuesday. It now goes to Walker.
The Assembly also passed a bill laying out a new two-year compensation plan for 31,000 other state workers that includes no general wage increases. Minority Democrats railed that the plan hurts hard-working state employees as well as local economies but the Republican-controlled chamber passed the measure anyway, 64-30.
The Senate passed that bill on Tuesday as well. It now goes to Walker, too.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.