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Senate budget calls for new borrowing for roads

Republican leaders of the Wisconsin state Senate hold a news conference July 18, 2017, at the state Capitol in Madison, to propose a version of the state budget. (WLUK/Courtney Ryan)

MADISON (AP) -- The state Senate's top Republicans took the unusual step Tuesday of introducing their own state budget proposal, challenging their Assembly counterparts to get on board with the new spending plan and end a monthlong standoff over road funding.

The Senate proposal contains all the provisions the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee has approved over the last few months as it revised Gov. Scott Walker's budget. But it also calls for more borrowing for roads -- an idea Assembly Republicans have repeatedly rejected -- as well as more money for schools and tax changes.

It's unclear where things go from here. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told reporters during a news conference Tuesday that he doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate plan out of his own chamber. The document is designed more to send a message to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos about the Senate's position, he said.

"My point is to try to get the process back on track, by demonstrating once again that this caucus has been meeting each and every week and there's not that much left to do," Fitzgerald said. "This clearly puts it back in the Assembly's court to develop what their position is."

Vos emerged from a meeting with Fitzgerald and Walker last week saying there's no way either of them will accept a gas tax or registration fee increase. He said then that the only option was to hold the transportation budget flat. Vos planned to meet with his members Tuesday afternoon.

"There isn't a whole lot of new ideas there. The only thing we heard that was new out of this news conference was that they want to get back to the table and start talking, which I think is extremely positive," said Assembly Majority Leader Rep. Jim Steineke. "We just don't think it's fiscally responsible to continue this extremely high level of bonding, and $712 million in bonding for transportation is even higher than the Governor proposed."

The Senate's move marks a major departure from the normal budget process. Traditionally, the governor introduces an executive budget, the finance committee revises it and the Senate and Assembly vote on the final plan before sending it back to the governor for his signature.

The finance committee's work on this budget stopped in mid-June, however, after Republicans started quarreling over how to plug a $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget.

Walker's budget called for borrowing an additional $500 million and delaying major projects. Assembly Republicans oppose any new borrowing; they want to generate more revenue and have suggested raising the gas tax or vehicle registration fees. Senate Republicans have called for more borrowing, saying Walker will never approve a tax or fee increase.

State law requires the budget to be completed by July 1, although that's mostly a symbolic deadline; spending continues at current levels until a new budget is adopted.

The Senate budget proposal calls for $712 million in borrowing to cover road work, including $350 million in borrowing backed by general tax dollars. It eliminates 200 positions within the state Department of Transportation and erases the prevailing wage law on state public works and highway projects. The law creates a minimum wage for workers on such projects.

The new spending plan retains language in Walker's budget that gives public schools an additional $650 million over the next two years. It also would allow more families to receive state vouchers for private school tuition by raising income limits for eligibility.

The document goes on to eliminate Walker's $203.4 million income tax cut, deletes his plan for a sales tax holiday on school supplies and repeals the personal property tax. That's a tax local governments impose on businesses' equipment and furniture. The Senate would give local governments $240 million to offset the lost revenue.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said in an email that the governor welcomes the Senate budget because it aligns closely to his positions on road and school funding and tax relief.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, issued a statement calling the Senate budget "dead on arrival."

"Despite having total control of the statehouse and Governor's office, Republican infighting has prevented progress for weeks," Shilling said. "Working families are tired of the Republican dysfunction that is paralyzing our government from the federal level down to the state."

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