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State's biggest budget issues still undecided

As the Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee wrapped up work Friday, it finished with few major fights resolved. That means the $58 billion, two-year budget could be signed into law later in the summer than any state budget since 1999, when a ...

As the Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee wrapped up work Friday, it finished with few major fights resolved.

That means the $58 billion, two-year budget could be signed into law later in the summer than any state budget since 1999, when a bitter, partisan dispute delayed passage until Oct. 6 of that year, according to lawmakers, outside experts and a review of past budgets.

Disagreements among Democrats and Republicans on the committee over Gov. Jim Doyle's proposals to raise taxes to fund education and health-care programs have left a larger number of tough decisions to a conference committee of Senate and Assembly lawmakers who will meet later this summer

The earliest possible date the 1,757-page budget is likely to be passed and signed by the governor is the end of July, or a month after the start of the new budget year on July 1, said Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at UW-Milwaukee and a former Democratic state senator.

If a new budget isn't in place by then, the state automatically keeps running under the framework of the current budget. But the delay makes it more difficult for everyone from school boards to state agencies to plan their own budgets, Lee said.

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"The good thing is state government doesn't shut down; the bad thing is the Legislature doesn't have to pass a budget by July 1," Lee said. "There's no responsibility."

Before the budget goes to the conference committee, it will be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, wants to have work finished by July 4, spokesman Josh Wescott said.

Then it goes to the Republican Assembly, where GOP lawmakers hope to have their own vote on it soon after the Senate vote, said Bob Delaporte, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem.

Finally, the conference committee, with members evenly split between both houses, is expected to do the heavy lifting -- resolving the large differences that Senate Democrats and Assembly Republicans say they expect between their budget versions.

Doyle has said he will need about three weeks after the bill reaches his desk to review it and decide on possible vetoes. That means the budget process might drag on until Labor Day, Sept. 3, said Dale Knapp, research director at the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. In 1999, then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala and Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen bitterly feuded before the budget was passed on Oct. 6.

Compromises difficult

"While there's been agreement on a lot of smaller things (in the budget committee), the bigger battles are going to be in conference committee," Knapp said of the current budget effort.

The even split between Republicans and Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee has made it harder to reach early compromises than it was during the previous two budgets, when Republicans controlled the committee, Knapp said.

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When the conference committee meets, it will have to find compromises while managing its own even split of Democrats and Republicans.

On Wednesday, the Joint Finance Committee reached a key compromise between GOP and Democratic lawmakers on lifetime tracking of certain sex offenders after their release from prison using global positioning system technology.

There was also bipartisan agreement on raising driver's license fees by $10 and increasing the cost to register a car from $55 to $75 a year to pay for road work, though committee votes on larger transportation plans were deadlocked.

Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang said the Joint Finance Committee finished its voting on the budget Friday "dead on" the date past committees have finished for the last decade.

But this year, the big battles all lie ahead. They include the tax and fee increases proposed by Doyle that have faced strong criticism from Republicans:

  • A new tax on companies selling gasoline that would bring in $275 million over two years for roads.
  • A $1.25 increase in the cigarette tax to $2.02 per pack that would bring in more than $500 million over two years for medical programs for the poor.
  • A tax on hospitals that would bring in $415 million over two years and then reimburse hospitals for Medicaid costs.
  • An increase in the state-imposed cap on local governments' taxes from 2 percent to 4 percent a year, or the percentage growth in construction.

Voting along party lines
So far, these major tax and spending increases that have come before the Joint Finance Committee have seen largely party-line votes of 8-8, with Democrats supporting Doyle's proposals and Republicans opposing them. Those deadlocks have meant that Doyle's major proposals, including the taxes and increases in spending on health care and the University of Wisconsin System, have remained in the budget.

But Huebsch has said the Assembly will pass a budget with no new taxes as well as tax cuts -- a plan that would have stark differences with the one favored by Democrats.

"We need to earn our way back out of the top ten" highest-taxed states, Delaporte said.

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Doyle is happy to see his proposal passed intact out of the Joint Finance Committee but he is concerned about Republicans' rhetoric, spokesman Matt Canter said.

"If Republicans plan to make deep cuts into health care and education and job creation, then it could be very painful for the state," he said.

-- Copyright © 2007, The

Wisconsin State Journal /

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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