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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Democrats Shut Out of Fast-Tracked Budget and Bills

GOP backroom deals on vouchers, health care and taxes denounced

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Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Scott Walker met this past week to craft handshake deals on income tax cuts, voucher school expansion and Medicaid changes, completely shutting Democrats out of the discussions.

Democratic candidates won almost 200,000 more votes last November but they are in the minority in both houses of the state Legislature, thanks to the Republican-crafted redistricting map implemented last year.

That lopsided political presence means that Republicans need only find deals that their conservative and more moderate members can agree on.

So, lacking influence in the Legislature, Democrats took their case to the public to urge independent Republicans to support full Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, halt voucher school expansion and implement a fair income tax cut.

At a Monday press conference, Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said the Capitol has been quiet lately not because legislators agree on the final details of the budget, but because so few are involved in it.

“The details of this budget are being hashed out behind closed doors in backrooms with Republicans and voucher school lobbyists,” Larson said. “The people of Wisconsin, who fund this budget, are purposely being kept out of the loop because Republicans know Wisconsin taxpayers would never stand for the omnipresent corruption that is finding its way into this budget.”

Larson noted that those making the final deals have taken large contributions from voucher supporters and special interest groups who would benefit from the last-minute budget negotiations over education, health care and tax cuts.

 

Democrats Decry Last-Minute Budget Deals

Larson called on Republican members on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) to take three votes: to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion; to increase funding by at least $275 per pupil for public K-12 schools, while eliminating the proposed voucher expansion in the state budget; and to implement a fair income tax cut that benefits the middle class.

“Bipartisanship isn’t just Republicans negotiating with other Republicans and interest groups,” Larson said. “It means negotiating with everyone—with Democrats who represent those across the state.”

On Monday, state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse), a JFC member, called the rumored proposed deal to expand vouchers statewide “worse than the original” proposal, since it would affect all school districts in the state, instead of nine additional districts, as Walker proposed. (As of press time, the final deal had not been announced.) Although the deal is said to limit voucher participation to 500 students in the first year and 1,000 annually after that, Democrats are concerned that the cap would be lifted eventually and vouchers would go statewide in a big way.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said the arm-twisting that must have gone on in the backroom had to be incredibly severe to convince Republican legislators to accept a deal that would expand vouchers to all districts instead of nine.

“What kind of negotiating is this?” Barca asked. “There has to be a lot of dislocated elbows, there has to be some arms that are sprained severely, there has to be maybe some broken bones.”

Even if the voucher participation limit stays in the budget, state Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Middleton) warned in May that Walker could use his line-item veto power to cancel out the cap after the budget passes.

The proposed deal reportedly includes more funding for vouchers and public schools but no increased accountability or transparency requirements for these private schools—mostly religious schools—that are funded with taxpayer dollars.

JFC member Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) called yet again for the state to accept almost $4 billion in federal funding to expand Medicaid programs—primarily BadgerCare—to more low-income Wisconsinites. He pointed to recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports calling into question Walker’s assumptions when crafting his own BadgerCare reform, which would cost Wisconsin taxpayers an additional $100 million in the next two years while covering fewer people.

Walker “can grandstand or he can govern,” Richards said.

At the JFC meeting on Tuesday, Democrats offered an amendment that would accept the federal money to expand Medicaid access. The proposal was shot down on a 12-4 party-line vote.

Over the weekend, news leaked that Republicans were crafting a deal to add additional funds in the budget for hospitals that would have to provide coverage for people who have no health insurance under the Walker Medicaid proposal. On Tuesday, the JFC approved the deal with Walker’s Medicaid package.

The Democrats also blasted a Republican deal on income taxes. State Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) criticized a new proposal by state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) to reduce income taxes by collapsing the five income tax brackets into three and lowering all of their tax rates. For example, under the plan, those making between $14,510 and $319,000 would pay the same 5.94% tax rate. Those at the bottom of the bracket would get a $9 tax cut, while those at the top end would get an average tax cut of $2,567.

“Where I come from, that’s not the same thing,” Mason said.

 

Voter Suppression Bill ‘Like a Civil War Reenactment’

At the same time the public’s attention is being drawn to final budget negotiations in the JFC, Republican legislators have piled on by fast-tracking controversial bills through the Legislature.

On Friday, Democratic legislators and their allies called a press conference in Greendale to warn the public about a new elections bill being fast-tracked through the Assembly. Authored by state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), the bill would reinstate the voter ID requirement, open up loopholes for corporate-sponsored phony issue ads aired during elections, inject partisan politics into the state Government Accountability Board, and make it more difficult to recall elected officials.

The Democrats have long argued that voter IDs would suppress voting by students, minority voters, low-income citizens and the elderly. An appeals court ruled last week that the Legislature had the right to enact a voter ID requirement, but it remains on hold because another judge has ruled that the requirement unconstitutionally harms a voter’s ability to cast a ballot.

Nevertheless, Republicans declared victory last week and Stone is attempting to pass the requirement through the Legislature again.

“When we see bills like this that are constantly reintroduced, voter restriction bills, it’s like a Civil War reenactment,” said state Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee). “But some people don’t realize that the South actually lost.”

Stone began circulating the bill for co-sponsors just before the Memorial Day holiday. It was being debated in an Assembly committee on Tuesday as the Shepherd was going to press. It will likely be up for a committee vote on Thursday and, if it passes, will go to the full Assembly by the end of the month.