Headed for a showdown: Wisconsin Senate schedules budget vote despite GOP holdout

MADISON — The Republican leader of the Wisconsin State Senate scheduled a floor vote on the long-delayed state budget for Friday morning despite the continued holdout from GOP senators that leaves the bill short of the votes it needs to pass.

The budget holdouts are senators Duey Stroebel of Saukville, Chris Kapenga of Delafield and Steve Nass of Whitewater. A fourth senator, Dave Craig of the Town of Vernon, is opposed to the budget, leaving Senate Republican leaders one vote shy of the 17 votes they need.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, whose chamber passed the budget Wednesday night, compared the senators’ demands to a “ransom list” and said the time for negotiating changes had long since passed.

The senators say they have been negotiating with Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who scheduled a floor vote for 9:30 a.m. Friday and remains optimistic the budget will pass at that time, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

A document provided by Stroebel’s office shows the trio of senators are demanding changes on issues ranging from a statewide voucher school expansion to a faster repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law. Among their requests:

  • Nearly double the income eligibility for the statewide voucher school system. The current eligibility limit is 185 percent of the federal poverty level, though the budget expands that to 220 percent. The senators want a further increase to 300 percent, matching the current eligibility in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher systems.
  • Repeal the state’s prevailing wage law on January 1, 2018, instead of September 1, 2018. The decades-old law sets a minimum wage for workers on state construction projects.
  • Prohibit the University of Wisconsin System from spending money on mandatory diversity, sensitivity and cultural fluency training for students, faculty and staff.
  • Permanently ban school districts from seeking state loans for energy-efficiency projects through the state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The loan program allows districts to get an infusion of cash for energy projects, such as LED lighting installation. The districts’ taxpayers have to pay back the state loan, causing a tax increase. The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District caused controversy by using this program this year after voters rejected an operating referendum.
  • Eliminate Milwaukee County’s $30 wheel tax, unless county voters approve it during a referendum within the next 18 months. All counties would have to get approval from voters in a referendum before imposing any future wheel taxes.

Senator Duey Stroebel

“These things aren’t out in left field. These are concepts we’ve discussed, we’ve talked about, and these are really good conservative reforms that should be in this budget to make it a better budget,” said Stroebel in an interview in his Cedarburg office.

The Assembly approved the budget late Wednesday on a 57-39 vote, with five Republicans joining all 34 Democrats against it. Vos vowed he would not bring the Assembly back into session to vote on the budget again.

Vos said the senators should bring up their requests as standalone bills, not as part of the budget process.

“You have every opportunity to do that. You’re elected! You don’t have to hold the whole state hostage for your pet projects,” Vos told reporters Thursday.

Capitol in Madison

In a phone interview, Kapenga said the bloc of senators would vote against the budget if no changes are made.

“Without changes, I don’t see us being able to pass a budget at this point,” said Kapenga, R-Delafield. “I think we’ve made that pretty clear.”

Mike Mikalsen, a spokesman for Nass, told FOX6 News that the list of demands could grow next week if a deal isn’t approved by this weekend. Specifically, he mentioned placing limitations on the state’s Public Finance Authority, an agency that issues tax-exempt bonds and has come under fire from conservatives.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke was not swayed.

“Let me be as clear as I can. Threats will not work. We will not blow up (the) process for them,” Steineke tweeted late Thursday in response to Mikalsen’s comments.

Senate Democrats, who face a 20-13 minority, are united in opposition to the budget, said Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling in an interview.

The budget was due July 1st. In Wisconsin, late budgets don’t have immediate effects but the impacts are growing.

The state Department of Transportation has begun delaying bids on some construction projects, including the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee County, and some school district administrators have said they are hiring substitutes instead of full-time teachers because their own budgets are uncertain.

The path toward final passage of the budget only gets more complicated. Vos said he would not bring the Assembly back into session next week. He gets married in early October, meaning the earliest the Assembly could return would be mid-October.

At that point, lawmakers have a short deadline to deliver state aid to school districts.