Senate Republicans approved their two-year state budget Wednesday by a slim 17-16 margin largely along party lines, guaranteeing it will land on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ desk in coming weeks.
The passage of the two-year state spending plan came after Republicans secured the vote of a key Senate conservative.
Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, one of three skeptical Republicans who kept the roughly $81 billion budget’s prospects in limbo this month, announced his “yes” vote earlier Wednesday, eliminating the possibility lawmakers needed to make further major changes to ensure its passage.
Senators voted on the budget after debating for about six hours and considering several unsuccessful Democratic amendments.
Two Republican senators — Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, and David Craig, R-Big Bend — voted against the plan because they argued it spends too much. The Senate, which Republicans control by a 19-14 margin, could afford only two GOP defectors with all Democrats voting “no.”
Evers in coming weeks will receive the two-year spending plan to consider signing it into law. Wielding one of the most powerful veto pens in the nation, he has broad authority to strike words, numbers and punctuation to bend it more toward his liking.
Evers also could veto the entire budget document, something a Wisconsin governor has never done before. Once Evers has received the bill, he will have six days, excluding Sunday, to veto it or exercise his line-item veto authority.
Evers has previously declined to specify what his approach would be. After the budget’s passage he wrote on Twitter that “the will of the people is the law of the land, and that’s what will be on my mind as I review the Legislature’s changes to our budget.”
On Tuesday the Assembly approved the GOP state budget 60-39. Republicans have heralded the spending plan as a reasonable compromise.
“When Governor Evers started the budget process in February, he asked Republicans in the Legislature to make advancements in funding education, health care, and infrastructure,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement. “We did just that while sticking to our conservative principles.”
Democrats have argued it falls short of necessary investments in transportation, health care and education.
“Republicans chose to reject bringing home 1.2 billion of your federal dollars a year to expand Medicaid; slashed school funding compared to the People’s Budget, including special education by 83%; deleted provisions to ensure access to clean drinking water; and provided less tax relief to Wisconsinites in order to protect massive tax giveaways to the wealthy,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, said in a statement.
Kapenga announced his support for the budget after the Assembly made a last-minute change that would allow electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla to sell cars directly to consumers in the state.
Kapenga, who sells Tesla parts and salvaged electric vehicles, told reporters Wednesday he makes no money from the car business and regards it purely as a hobby. He says he rebuilds the cars for his own family and for others at cost.
Kapenga has previously sponsored legislation to allow direct Tesla sales in Wisconsin, but he said his interest in the cars came after he first sponsored the legislation.
Kapenga admitted he spoke with Republican leaders about including the Tesla provision in the final version. He said the provision’s inclusion was not the sole reason he decided to vote in favor of the budget.
Senate Democrats knocked the budget for not taking federal dollars to expand Medicaid, which Evers argued would save the state $324 million over the biennium and would have brought in $1.6 billion in additional federal dollars to spend on health care.
Republicans explained their opposition to Medicaid expansion by arguing it would lead to increased reliance on a federal program whose long-term existence is not guaranteed. They also said it could change the insurance pool in Wisconsin to the detriment of health insurers, and wouldn’t significantly address Wisconsin’s low hospital reimbursement rates.
Republicans also argue Wisconsin’s Medicaid program already insures people at or below the federal poverty level, and so insuring those beyond it under Medicaid expansion isn’t necessary.
The Republican-authored state budget includes funding increases for several other major departments, but in most cases, not as much as Evers wanted.
GOP lawmakers provided $484 million in new funding for the state’s roads. It’s similar to Evers’ proposal, but Republicans want to raise title and registration fees to raise new funding while Evers wanted to raise the gas tax and fees on heavy trucks.
The Republican plan would also make a one-time $90 million transfer from the general fund to the transportation fund on top of the $88 million already set to be transferred to the fund over the biennium.
The GOP budget also includes a $500 million increase for K-12 education, including $97 million for special education. Their education investment is smaller than that of Evers, who put forward a $1.4 billion K-12 plan, $600 million of which would have gone toward special education.
Both the GOP’s and Evers’ plans include income tax cuts. Evers put forward a tax credit targeted at those making less than $150,000 while the Republican proposal would affect nearly all earners.
Senators approved several other measures the Assembly previously passed. They include bills that would:
- Push back the closure date of the troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls youth prison in northern Wisconsin by six months, from January 2021 to July 2021. Lawmakers proposed the change to accommodate concerns from counties regarding construction timelines of replacement facilities. The bill cleared the chamber 33-0 and now heads to the governor.
- Cut the lower two income tax rates, saving an average taxpayer about $59 in 2020. That’s on top of a roughly $27 cut that taxpayers are already set to receive this year. Senators approved the measure 33-0 and it now heads to the governor. With the GOP budget plan, taxpayers would see a roughly $124 income tax reduction in 2020.
- Three bills that GOP lawmakers argue would reduce costs for transportation projects. One would allow contractors on Department of Transportation projects more flexibility with the types of materials they use to build roads to reduce costs; another would require the DOT to keep in its inventory of designs several “design-build” projects, where a single contractor is responsible for both design and construction of a project; and the third would encourage DOT employees to identify cost savings on projects. The three bills passed the Senate 19-14 along party lines and now head to the governor.