Wisconsin Governor Signs State Budget After Issuing Dozens of Vetoes
In signing the $68 billion state budget bill into law, the Republican governor used his substantial partial veto power to strip out a number of laws and programs he did not want.
By Jason Stein and Karen Herzog
In dozens of vetoes Sunday, Gov. Scott Walker took down several ornaments hung on the more than $68 billion state budget but left untrimmed the major branches bearing an income tax cut, expanded support for private schools, and tight financial controls on local governments and public universities.
In signing the bill into law, the Republican governor used his substantial partial veto power to strip millions of dollars for demolishing foreclosed homes in Milwaukee, block bounty hunters from entering the state and allow investigative journalists to remain on a University of Wisconsin campus. He also crossed out a catch-and-release bass season and a last-minute change by lawmakers that could have thwarted a 1,000-student cap on a statewide expansion of taxpayer-funded private schools.
After taking every moment he could to consider his vetoes, Walker signed the 2013-'15 budget bill just prior to it taking effect on Monday, holding the ceremony at Catalyst Exhibits, a trade show business that moved from Illinois two years ago to its present location outside Kenosha. Walker received a standing ovation as he signed the bill after a 20-minute speech, flanked by several GOP lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Rep. John Nygren of Marinette and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills.
"The real story is about the fact this is a budget built up to support and defend the hard-working people of Wisconsin," Walker said. "We continue to turn things around. With your help, by God, we're going to continue to move Wisconsin forward."
With his vetoes, Walker cut several provisions that his fellow Republicans in the Legislature added to the budget proposal that the governor first put forward in February. In all, Walker made 57 vetoes of words or phrases in the budget, a relatively modest number that is similar to the 50 partial vetoes that he made in 2011 and fewer than those seen in some previous budgets. That reflects the relatively close cooperation on the bill between Walker and the GOP lawmakers who control the Legislature.
Earlier in June, the budget passed the Assembly 55-42 and the Senate on the narrow margin of 17-16, completing a four-month legislative process that went far more smoothly than the bitter controversy that surrounded the last state budget in 2011. That reflected in no small part an improved economy that shifted the agenda at the Capitol from one of potential deficits and deep cuts to schools to one of tax cuts and modest increases in education dollars.
The budget includes a $651 million income tax decrease, freezes university tuition for two years, limits property tax increases on the typical home to about 1% in each of the next two years and rejects federal aid to expand the state's BadgerCare Plus health plan to more people.
All Democrats in the Legislature voted against the budget, and the vetoes did little to change their opinion of the bill. They said Sunday it didn't provide enough money for public schools, gave too much in tax cuts to the wealthy and wasted a chance to provide health care to more people with federal aid and still boost the state's bottom line by $119 million over the next two years.
Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee), a budget committee member, said he was pleased that the bail bondsman provision was dropped.
"But there were so many other things that hurt middle-class families that didn't get attention," Richards said, emphasizing the rejection of the federal health care aid. "It's going to cost people so much money around this state and it was such an obvious political decision."
The governor left intact many controversial provisions such as one requiring collection of DNA samples from those arrested for felonies and another eliminating local residency requirements for teachers and limiting them for police and firefighters.
As expected, many of the vetoes in this budget were technical changes to the complex, roughly 1,400-page bill. But other vetoes will have a real impact on everything from city neighborhoods to the state's justice system.
Walker also vetoed a budget provision that would have provided $3.5 million over the next two years to communities statewide for demolishing foreclosed homes. Milwaukee would have gotten most of that money because it has the largest inventory of homes that need to be razed immediately.
A city database indicates there are more than 800 bank-foreclosed homes in Milwaukee and an estimated 950 city-owned, tax-foreclosed properties. By the end of the year, officials estimate the city may have to take on hundreds more tax-foreclosed homes.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wondered Sunday whether Walker realized there was a foreclosure crisis in Milwaukee.
"The governor has never addressed this issue in a serious manner," Barrett said. "He has decided it doesn't exist."
Barrett said he was surprised by the veto, noting that the money amounted to a fraction of the $25 million that was awarded to Wisconsin more than a year ago from a national foreclosure settlement. Barrett said much of that money ended up in state coffers rather than state cities wrestling with foreclosed homes.
"He says he wants to transform Milwaukee," Barrett said of Walker. "I don't know what he wants to transform Milwaukee into. It's a tough day for the city." Both Richards and Darling expected separate legislation on the issue, with Darling saying that Barrett has "legitimate concerns."
Walker also vetoed a provision that required him to reduce state borrowing for building projects by $250 million to lower the overall amount of roughly $2 billion in new borrowing authorized by the budget. The vetoes also nixed a requirement that his administration only use refinancing to lower interest rates for the state and prohibited using those transactions to borrow more.
Walker said he was making those moves to gain flexibility and was still committed to the $250 million reduction in borrowing.
For the second time as governor, Walker vetoed a budget provision that would have allowed for-profit bail bondsmen to operate in Wisconsin for the first time since 1979.
The Legislature added the bounty hunter provision in this latest budget as well as in 2011, both through late-night votes of the Legislature's budget committee. After Walker vetoed the last provision in 2011, lawmakers tried to make it more palatable this time by having it begin as a five-county pilot.
But with almost the entire legal community of Wisconsin still against the proposal, the governor again vetoed it.
"(The governor) has listened to my concerns, the concerns of the law enforcement community and the concerns of many others, and made the decision that our current system is not broken and does not need to be fixed by legislating bail bonds into existence," Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement praising the veto.
The question, however, remained just a hair short of settled because in his veto message Walker left open the possibility of separate and more considered legislation on the question.
"This policy is best addressed through separate legislation to provide opportunity for additional study of the current system of pretrial release and to allow for public input," he said.
Walker is a longtime champion of taxpayer-financed voucher schools, but he slightly modified a statewide expansion of the program to keep it in line with an agreement he had brokered with Republican moderates in the state Senate.
Voucher programs like the ones already in place in Milwaukee and eastern Racine County allow children who meet income thresholds to attend publicly financed private schools. This fall, 500 students could participate in a new statewide program with the cap going to 1,000 students after that.
Under a last-minute Assembly amendment, schools participating in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs would have been able to accept students from elsewhere in the state without it counting toward the caps on the number of students in the new statewide voucher school program. Walker vetoed the provision.
Another veto allowed the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to remain on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Lawmakers had added a provision to boot the center from Vilas Hall and bar university staff from collaborating with it.
In his veto message, Walker said he was directing the UW Board of Regents to develop a comprehensive policy addressing how to handle cases in which outside groups make use of university space or staff.
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