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Budget plan cuts taxes, expands vouchers

Republicans praise spending balance; Democrats note special interests

Jun. 6, 2013
 

What’s next

The proposed two-year state budget next will be taken up by the Assembly in two weeks, then the Senate. After both houses settle on a plan, it goes to Gov. Scott Walker, who can sign it, veto all of it, or veto any items he opposes. The Legislature has the option to override Walker’s vetoes, or those items could be removed from the budget.

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Should the state budget include a private school tuition tax deduction?
» Yes, private school parents deserve the break
» No, the state shouldn’t spend more to help private schools
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More inside

» Highlights of the budget proposal / A4
» Opinion: Last-minute budget choices leave residents in dark / C1

Appleton school reaction

Appleton school officials on Wednesday liked what they saw in the state budget plan as far as student revenue limits. But they questioned some aspects of the expansion of private school voucher use. Don Hietpas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the increase of $150 in state funding per student will be helpful. Gov. Scott Walker’s original proposal did not include an increase. Accountability tied to school vouchers was a concern for Appleton Superintendent Lee Allinger. He noted the lack of teacher licensing requirements, standards for educating all students and participation in the state’s school report card program.

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MADISON — Republicans on the Legislature’s finance committee finished revising Gov. Scott Walker’s executive budget as the sun rose Wednesday morning, inserting provisions that would cut income taxes, expand private school vouchers and allow bounty hunters to nab bail jumpers.

The Joint Finance Committee began work Tuesday morning, took a 10-hour break to negotiate its final deals and wrapped up work shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday. All 12 Republicans on the committee voted to pass the spending plan; the panel’s four Democrats voted against it.

The budget now heads to the Assembly for debate, then to the Senate and finally to Walker, who can use his extensive partial veto power to rework the document before signing it.

Walker told reporters at an appearance at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Wednesday that it’s too early to say if he’ll veto anything in the budget, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

Republican leaders praised themselves for their work, saying the budget is balanced and helps people save money.

“Today was a win for the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a statement.

Democrats, meanwhile, lined up to lambast the budget. Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, sent out an email complaining about the bounty hunter provisions topped with a photograph of Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee called the spending plan a hand-out to special interests and the wealthy.

“The biggest winners in the dark of night budget were those who could afford to pay lobbyists to be in the Capitol’s backrooms,” Larson said in a statement.

The plan’s centerpiece is the near-doubling of the $343 million income tax cut Walker proposed in February.

The package would cut rates in all five income tax brackets and compress them to four. Most of the cut would benefit those earning more than $100,000 a year; taxpayers earning $45,000 annually would save $85 a year.

Democrats accused Republicans of favoring tax cuts for the rich over restoring cuts to public schools the GOP made two years ago.

“We’re doing this on the backs of schoolchildren,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, a finance committee member.

The budget also expands private school vouchers statewide and increases public school spending by $150 per student. Walker allowed for no spending increase; Democrats wanted $275 more per student.

Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, who opposes vouchers and was involved in striking a deal behind closed doors last week, said he’s confident Walker “will not violate our agreement” by vetoing program limitations in the bill.

“Do I like vouchers? No,” Ellis said. “But when you’re working with the governor and all the other forces involved, this was a fair compromise.”

Vouchers are currently allowed only in Milwaukee and Racine. Walker’s plan would have permitted them in nine additional cities. The governor worked with lawmakers on a compromise, saying in a statement it will give parents more choices when looking for alternatives for underperforming schools.

Statewide enrollment in voucher schools outside Milwaukee and Racine would be capped at 500 next year and 1,000 after that; Walker wanted unlimited enrollment after the second year. Only 1 percent of a school district’s enrollment could participate.

Walker’s proposal would allow students from families earning up to $77,947 to enroll. The new plan trims that back to $43,567.

Voucher payments would increase to $7,210 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade starting in 2014 and $7,856 for those in high school, as Walker wanted. Further increases would be tied to public school funding increases. A Walker proposal to issue vouchers for special-needs students was deleted.

Voucher expansion has been a key priority for Republicans, who maintain the subsidies provide another choice for parents dissatisfied with public school but can’t afford private school. Democrats counter the program siphons money from public education.

“Overnight we have supersized vouchers in this state,” said Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, another finance committee member. “It’s vouchers on steroids.”

Republicans also approved language that would clear the way for a private bail bond system.

Judges in Dane, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Racine and Waukesha counties would be allowed to let defendants hire bail bond agencies. The agencies would charge the defendant 10 percent of the bond, pay the counties 3 percent of the bond and could send bounty hunters after any defendant who doesn’t show up for court.

The system would expand statewide in five years. The state courts director would have to give the Legislature a summary of the pilot counties’ experiences no later than six months ahead of the expansion.

Wisconsin’s law enforcement community generally opposes bail bondsmen. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said police should keep going after bail jumpers because they understand defendants’ rights better than bounty hunters.

Hintz said bail bondsmen target poor defendants and predicted the industry would give judges campaign donations in exchange for higher bail amounts, which would increase bondsmen’s profits. Larson issued a statement later Wednesday warning bail bondsmen would “terrorize Wisconsin neighborhoods.”

Milwaukee County Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers said he would never allow bail bondsmen. He said judges set bail based on defendants’ risk of fleeing or committing another crime and don’t want to see those standards minimized by defendants paying less. Counties also would lose out on full bond amounts that go to reimburse victims and cover fines if a defendant is convicted, he said.

“These are the risks when you bring in a system that is profit-based, not risk-based,” Kremers said.

Dennis Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, which pushed for the measure, said 46 other states allow bail bondsmen and the Wisconsin proposal provides plenty of oversight.

“If we don’t do our job well, people don’t come to us,” he said. “I’m confident it will stand on its own merits over a period of time.”

Walker vetoed a similar provision in the 2011-13 state budget, saying the plan was rushed. Asked whether Walker supports the new language, spokesman Tom Evenson said Walker would review the entire budget when it reached him.

The committee also approved Walker’s plan to reject a federally funded expansion of Medicaid. Wisconsin is among 15 states not planning on expanding.

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