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Still, no workable compromise

MADISON -- Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's revised state budget passed the Senate but died in the Assembly late Monday, casting the Capitol impasse over taxes into a 108th day today.

MADISON -- Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's revised state budget passed the Senate but died in the Assembly late Monday, casting the Capitol impasse over taxes into a 108th day today.

Doyle called the Legislature into special session to try to break the impasse. That effort failed, and lawmakers must now resume negotiations that have stretched on for months.

The Legislature's top Republican, Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch of West Salem, said he wanted to restart talks soon to resolve the hundreds of millions of dollars in differences between Republicans and Democrats.

"My hope is that starting tomorrow, we go back and, OK, we recognize that $1.2 billion (in new spending) is too much," Huebsch said Monday.

Serious talks were unlikely to take place before competing Capitol rallies Wednesday by an anti-tax group and labor unions.

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In a statement, Doyle said that by not passing a budget, Assembly Republicans failed to do their jobs and created a "fiscal nightmare" for the state.

"The cost to operate school buses, pay heating bills and maintain roads has gone up, and lawmakers refuse to deal with it," Doyle said. "The state is spending more than we are taking in, and we will be unable to fund essential services that protect the health and safety of our citizens."

Assembly Republicans took the floor to say that Wisconsin residents already pay taxes that are high enough. Although pledging to continue to work on a compromise, Huebsch said the Assembly would aim for a spending plan that was "not living within the desires of government but within the means of taxpayers."

Wisconsin is the only state without a new budget, and the votes Monday made it unlikely that lawmakers would pass a budget before Oct. 27 -- the latest date the Legislature has ever passed a budget, in 1971.

"We're going to look like fools" when Wisconsin residents learn that the Legislature could not pass a budget Monday, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said.

But Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, noted that state spending continues at pre-July 1 levels until a budget is passed. Each day without the new budget saves taxpayers about $3 million, he said.

Meanwhile, citing the lack of a new budget, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster on Monday certified aid for Wisconsin's 426 school districts at the level of last year.

"While I wish it wasn't so, using last year's figures means that most school districts will be receiving less in state aid this year than if the Legislature had reached a budget agreement," Burmaster said in a statement, adding that districts will have to choose whether to cut programs and staff or raise local property taxes.

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As a result, districts could raise property taxes as much as $79.3 million statewide, meaning taxes could go up $27 on the median Wisconsin home, valued at about $170,000, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

To try to halt that tax increase, the Assembly passed a school funding plan last month. The Senate has declined to bring it up separate from the full budget.

The Senate went first Monday, passing by 18-14 a two-bill package that included Doyle's controversial tax on oil companies to pay for highways and bridges. All Democrats voted for the budget plan, and all Republicans opposed it. Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, was absent from the vote for health reasons.

About four hours later, Assembly Republicans and two Democrats killed the larger spending bill and ended the session without taking up the transportation bill.

They defeated the plan 53-44. Two Democrats -- Sheldon Wasserman of Milwaukee and Amy Sue Vruwink of Milladore -- sided with the bulk of the Republicans. A third Democrat, Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc, did not vote but said he opposed Doyle's plan.

Republican Rep. Brett Davis of Oregon voted with the majority of Democrats.

Doyle's $58 billion budget included a $450 million tax on smokers, a $418 million tax on hospitals and a one-time transfer of $175 million from the fund that helps pay medical malpractice claims. Those moves were intended to help expand health care coverage in the state.

Republicans have said they could accept the transfer from the malpractice fund and a 75-cent increase in the tax on a pack of cigarettes -- 50 cents less than what Doyle wants.

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Both sides talked about the need to compromise, but Rep. Kitty Rhoades, R-Hudson, said Doyle and Democrats had not come far enough toward the middle to forge an agreement.

"This job can be done without rhetoric or histrionics," she said. "Meet halfway."

Democrats said Republicans were exaggerating the effect of Doyle's proposal on taxpayers.

"The only family in Wisconsin that's going to see an increase is an oil executive who chain smokes three packs a day," Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said.

The hospital tax has been the biggest sticking point. The Wisconsin Hospital Association for months opposed the new tax but has recently been lobbying for it because it would draw more federal aid for hospitals. Republicans are steadfast against it, Huebsch said.

Doyle said he had made a "big move" by bringing legislators into a special session to vote on a compromise version of the budget. By not passing a budget, Assembly Republicans were shirking their duties, he said in a brief interview.

"The Legislature in Wisconsin is supposed to pass a budget," Doyle said. "This is a legislative obligation. They're a majority party in the Legislature. They have an obligation to pass a budget."

After the Senate and the Assembly passed vastly different versions of the budget this summer, they formed a conference committee of leaders to work out their differences. When that failed, Huebsch and Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, began meeting with Doyle aides behind closed doors.

Doyle then offered the revised budget that both houses took up Monday.

Talks with Doyle?

Huebsch said he expected Assembly Republicans to pick up negotiations with Doyle's administration.

"We haven't really been negotiating with the Senate Democrats for about the last 10 days," Huebsch said. "It's really with the governor. ... The governor can bring along the Senate as he is able."

Robson said she expected to be involved, saying Senate Democrats "have always been at the table."

Doyle has said that not having a budget will force cuts across state government because of higher costs for employees, utilities and fuel. He has said state workers could be furloughed, students at University of Wisconsin campuses could face tuition surcharges, and health care programs could be cut.

Robson, who said Democrats made a major concession by dropping their universal health care plan last month, said: "At some point, you have to stop the fight. You just have to know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em."

Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said Doyle's budget "sticks it to the middle class" by raising tuition on UW campuses, boosting a tax on nursing home beds and increasing the annual vehicle registration fee from $55 to $75.

The lack of progress Monday dropped the controversy back at the door of the Legislature, which considers the budget submitted by the governor and is supposed to send its own budget back to the governor.

-- Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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