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Politics & Government

State Senate Passes Budget After Long Night of Debate

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Ann Althouse
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Republicans who control Wisconsin's Senate worked late into the night and passed a $73 billion budget that will dictate state spending for the next two years.

The vote was 18-15, with Republican Rob Cowles joining all 14 Democrats in voting against the measure. It will go to the state Assembly on Wednesday.

The budget included removing language that would have gutted Wisconsin’s open records law and repealing the prevailing wage for local projects.

Much of the discussion centered on the open records law. The Joint Finance committee last week approved a provision that would have forbidden access to deliberative materials – anything used in the bill making process.

There was a huge public outcry over the weekend, which prompted Gov. Walker to vow to work with lawmakers to remove the provision from the budget.

On Tuesday, the Senate’s first order of business was to delete the language. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald introduced the motion to remove, but left open the possibility that changes to the law could come up again.

“I would hope that after it’s deleted today because it’s very hot, it’s a very difficult environment that we’re discussing this, but I’m hopeful we can eventually figure out what we can do to update this section of the statute,” Fitzgerald says.

Fitzgerald revealed Tuesday that he and Gov. Walker’s office helped craft the changes. A spokeswoman for the governor then confirmed the office offered input. Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach admonished Republicans on the Joint Finance committee for initially supporting the changes.

“This doesn’t make you a hero – at all. And, for the six of you in this chamber who voted for this, you will still have some explaining to do. This vote doesn’t take away what happened last Thursday night,” Erpenbach says.

The budget also would scrap prevailing wage laws in local communities. The law requires companies that contract with state or local governments to pay their employees the prevailing wage for that community. GOP Sen. Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa says studies show removing prevailing wage laws could save the state significant money.

“The Taxpayer Alliance study showed nearly $300 million in possible savings on public school buildings and heavy construction. These savings are real and they could reduce taxes. Those sound like better options than overpaying for existing projects,” Vukmir says.

Democratic Sen. Jennifer Schilling of La Crosse called removal of prevailing wage an attack on the middle class.

“Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws help grow private sector, high skilled, professional construction jobs. They develop high quality construction jobs across the state. Those are good paying wages,” Schilling says.

The budget also provides a modest increase in funding for public schools in the second year, allocates more money for voucher schools and cuts funding to the UW System by $250 million.

Gov. Walker had proposed borrowing $1.3 billion for road projects. The Senate whittled down that amount by $350 million. It means some projects throughout the state could be delayed, but construction on the Zoo Interchange would continue.

In addition, the budget requires drug screening for recipients of public benefits and allows workers to agree to work seven days a week without a day off.

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