MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker’s half-billion dollar tax cut plan passed a state Assembly committee Thursday over objections from Democrats and continued negotiations among Republican lawmakers.
The Assembly plans to vote Tuesday on the property and income tax cuts and another Walker proposal to spend $35 million on worker training. But the Senate is moving more slowly, continuing discussions behind closed doors before sending the bills to the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.
Though Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly, their leaders are bickering over how quickly to vote on the tax cuts and worker training funds made possible by a budget surplus that’s $912 million more than anticipated.
Walker reiterated Thursday that he’s open to making changes as long as the tax cuts aren’t sacrificed.
The rub for Senate Republicans is that Walker’s plan would increase by $100 million a shortfall for the budget that begins in mid-2015. One option would be to use money Walker wanted to put into the state’s rainy day fund and instead pay down the projected shortfall, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said that wouldn’t be his preference, but would do it if Fitzgerald said that’s the only way the cuts pass. Walker told reporters he would be OK with that option as well, as long as the tax cuts remain largely unchanged.
“We’re willing to work with the Legislature on a number of different options,” Walker said. “Whether you do it through the balance through the rainy day fund or other ways, in the end we’re setting it aside for the future.”
Walker’s proposal includes a $406 million property tax cut and a $98 million income tax reduction. The property tax cut would save the owner of a median-valued home $131. The average income tax reduction would be $46 this year.
Democrats, without enough votes to stop the tax cuts, are raising concerns about moving too fast and not fully understanding the ramifications of spending the surplus on tax cuts.
“This budget spends our surplus like a drunken sailor,” said Democratic Rep. Brett Hulsey, of Madison, during committee discussion. “It’s irresponsible.”
But Republican backers, echoing the argument made by Walker when he unveiled the tax cuts two weeks ago, said the money should be returned to taxpayers.
“When there’s a surplus, these are overcharged taxes,” said Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin. “The big picture is this: We have an opportunity to return overtaxation to the citizens of the state.”
The Assembly’s Jobs, Economy and Mining Committee voted 8-6 along party lines to pass the tax cut bill. Fitzgerald has said the Senate won’t take it up until the budget committee votes on it. That panel is made up of 16 lawmakers, eight from each house, and is typically the first stop for such bills.
Democrats expressed hope that changes could be made in the budget committee to address both their concerns and those raised by Senate Republicans.
Also Thursday, Democrats on the Assembly’s Workforce Development Committee said they wanted the $35 million worker training bill to specify how the money would be spent.
As it stands, money given to the Department of Workforce Development is to be spent on eliminating technical college waiting lists for high-demand fields, helping high school students get trained for high-demand jobs through dual enrollment programs and supporting programs that help people with disabilities find work.
The bill does not say how much money would go to each area, or what exactly it would be spent on.
Republicans defended the approach, saying the Legislature shouldn’t micromanage allocation of the money. They also said DWD was working closely with the technical colleges and disability rights community on that exact issue. Reggie Newson, DWD secretary, sent a letter Tuesday to disability rights groups outlining where grants would be directed, but no dollar amounts were specified.
The committee passed the bill 11-3, with three Democrats joining all eight Republicans in support.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.