In a dramatic, late-night hearing on Tuesday, four outraged Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee confronted...
Despite the dramatic move by Assembly Democrats in the Wisconsin State Legislature earlier this week to refuse to debate the state's 2013-2015 budget bill, the State Senate passed the measure early morning Friday after they were called into a midnight session. Asserting that the Republican-dominated Assembly had a track record of tabling every amendment they propose, Assembly Democrats figured their time would be better spent in their districts talking directly to constituents and urging them to convince a few Republican senators who had voiced serious concerns with the plan to vote no.
"When you keep hitting a brick wall eventually you have to start doing something new," said Minority Leader Peter Barca in a press conference after the budget vote on Wednesday. Democrats reported that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos repeatedly told them that he would not allow any amendments to the bill once it came to the floor.
Vos introduced the budget as being "definitely on the side of taxpayers." He said, "I am optimistic that this budget puts us in the exact spot we want to be: Reducing income taxes for middle class families, less state spending over the long haul, allowing a property tax freeze which is effectively 1 percent statewide, having a UW tuition freeze, and ultimately less bonding and fewer state positions than were put into effect into the state budget."
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos at a loss after Democrats refuse to debate the budget bill. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
In other words, the budget decreases investment in public goods and services, and prevents local units of governments from raising funds to fill in the gaps to meet their own needs.
Joint Finance Committee co-chair state representative John Nygren said he was proud of his colleagues on the committee and of the budget process he and co-chair state senator Alberta Darling oversaw. Under their direction the Republican-stacked committee added nearly 100 non-fiscal policy items, many of which were introduced in the middle of the night on the last day of the body's deliberations.
These include the reintroduction of bail bonding in the state, a practice opposed by the entire legal community, and the eviction of the Center for Investigative Journalism from the the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. None of these late-night amendments received public hearings.
Minority Leader Barca opened his half-hour speech saying, "I usually try to sprinkle in some humor in my remarks, but not today. This is far too serious." He then launched into a blistering attack on the $68 billion budget, saying that it "doubles down on an agenda that has done so much damage to the economy and put Wisconsin in an economic ditch."
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca speaks out against the budget. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Citing U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Department of Labor statistics that place Wisconsin at or near the bottom of national job creation and economic growth rankings, Barca challenged Republicans: "You have to own up to that record of all those rankings."
He went on to slam the plan for rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funds for Medicare expansion, inadequate funding for public schools while expanding private school vouchers statewide, and massive tax breaks for the wealthy.
"Walker quadrupled tax benefits for those making over $300,000 a year than what he gives the average working family," said Barca of the Governor's original budget bill. He then added, "But if that wasn't bad enough, in one of yet another of your backroom, after-midnight deals, you decided you had to go further. You gave those making over $300,000 ten times the tax benefits of working families!"
Barca then put forward the suggestion that shocked half the room and threw the body into temporary disarray: "Let's vote now. Let's see what your priorities are. Let's expose to the people what your values are."
Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder confers with Democratic leadership after they abruptly call for a vote. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
The Republican leadership was caught by surprise. As in the case of every other unpopular and divisive bill they have pushed through the legislative process over the past two and a half years, Republicans were hunkering down to listen -- or not listen -- to hours of impassioned speeches on Democratic amendments that they would then move to table. But not this time.
After a few half-hearted speeches by Assembly Republicans defending the budget, the vote was called. The budget passed 55-42, with three Republicans voting against it and one not voting. In a press release, Republican state representative Steve Nass said his opposition to the budget was based on financial facts and called it the worst budget he's seen in his decades-long legislative career.
In press conferences after the vote, Republicans blamed Democrats for not doing their job and for giving up on the democratic process, while Democrats said that since the Republicans hadn't listened to them or the public over the past two and a half years in power, they would be taking their message directly to the people.
Assembly Democrats have left Madison to spread their message across the state.
The state senate took up the budget Thursday morning, with both sides agreeing to a twelve-hour debate. Democrats had drafted fifty-three amendments, but only twenty-nine of them had been debated and voted on by the witching hour. Shortly after 10 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald moved for a vote to end debate and proceed to final passage of the bill. But he failed to gain the two-thirds vote required to put the budget to a final vote. Fitzgerald then moved to adjourn until 12:01 a.m. the next day to finish the job. He pulled a similar move last year when Democrats objected to the third reading of a massive wetlands deregulation bill.
The hour and a half break afforded the senators a chance to unwind at a local bar. They were back in session for only ten minutes in order to take the vote. Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson gave a short speech in which he vowed that his party would continue to fight for middle class families. Neither Fitzgerald nor any other Republican bothered speaking to the budget, preferring to immediately call the question. At 12:10 a.m., the vote was seventeen-sixteen for final passage, with Republican Dale Schultz voting with the Democrats. The budget now goes to Scott Walker's desk, where he will likely use the power of his line-item veto to pick and choose among the changes made to his original proposal by the legislature.
The seeds of big money and special interest influence planted in the 2010 elections are now bearing fruit. Last year Scott Fitzgerald said, "If you think this budget was scary, wait until the next one!" The "next one" just passed, and it has made the struggle of public school defenders, health care advocates, environmental conservationists and anyone who still believes in the concept of public goods and public investment to maintain a basic level of public services exceedingly more difficult.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.