Wisconsin lawmakers ‘close’ on budget fixA month after legislative leaders and Gov. Jim Doyle went behind closed doors to plug a budget shortfall caused by the weakening economy, they have yet to emerge with an agreement. But there are signs that progress is being made.
By: By SCOTT BAUER / Associated Press Writer, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MADISON — A month after legislative leaders and Gov. Jim Doyle went behind closed doors to plug a budget shortfall caused by the weakening economy, they have yet to emerge with an agreement.
But there are signs that progress is being made.
“I think everybody’s pretty close,” said Carrie Lynch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker.
Road repair projects around the state could be delayed and aid to schools and local governments jeopardized without a deal soon, Doyle has said.
Last year, Doyle and lawmakers were nearly four months late on reaching a deal on what to include in the state’s $57.2 billion budget. The ink was barely dry when revenues began to dip and action was required to bring the budget into balance.
But partisan rhetoric has been much more muted this year, with lawmakers and Doyle skipping a so-called conference committee and going right into the private talks involving Doyle’s staff, Decker, and Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem.
Perhaps as a result, Republicans and Democrats have been much more optimistic that an amicable deal can be reached this time around. So optimistic, in fact, that Huebsch said back on March 27 that he was hopeful a deal was only days away.
Thirty-two days later, there was still no deal, but the optimism remained.
“In light of there being dramatically more communication between all sides now, we are hopeful the remaining obstacles can be overcome,” said Jim Bender, spokesman for Assembly Majority Leader Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.
Doyle’s spokeswoman Jessica Erickson declined to comment in detail about the ongoing negotiations but said all involved continue to talk and hope to reach a deal soon.
Few details have emerged about what kind of deal is being hashed out.
Going into the talks, there were several areas of disagreement. They included:
• Hospital Tax: Doyle and the Senate proposed a 0.7 percent tax on hospitals, saying it would be more than offset by federal matching funds used to pay higher rates to doctors who treat Medicaid patients. That tax isn’t included in the most recent proposal being discussed, Lynch said. Republicans, who have long opposed the hospital tax, are working hard to keep that out of any budget, Bender said.
• School aid delay: Both the Senate and Assembly favor delaying a $125 million payment to schools in an accounting move that won’t result in schools losing money but will take the expense off the state’s books for the current budget. Doyle objects, saying it only makes future budgets more difficult to balance. Lynch said delaying aid payments was not an “ideal situation” but preferable to cutting the amount of money schools will get.
• Transportation funding: Doyle proposed taking $293 million from the state’s transportation fund, a move that neither the Senate nor Assembly backed. Since 2003, Doyle has transferred more than $1.1 billion from the transportation fund and increased borrowing to replace it.