A delayed state budget bill is now on its way to the full Legislature, after the Joint Finance Committee wrapped up its work on the roughly $70 billion package early Friday morning. After a stalemate that stretched for more than a month, the budget writing panel took its final votes on transportation funding, taxes, and a sweeping motion that included everything from teacher licensing requirements to serious limitations on public access to legislative records.
Majority Republicans signed off earlier in the day Thursday on a transportation package that greatly reduced the $1.3 billion in bonding included in the budget proposed by Governor Scott Walker. The changes reduced bonding to $500 million, while setting aside another $350 million for requests by the Department of Transportation that would need approval from the JFC.
Lawmakers also backed a tax package that includes increasing the standard deduction for married tax filers, federalizes the alternative minimum tax, and phases out the ability of the troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to issue loans.
The marathon executive session wrapped up with a 24 page omnibus motion, which contained a wide range of sometimes controversial proposals. Known as “Motion 999,” it has long been a dumping group for special interest proposals inserted into the budget at the end of the process.
The motion included multiple measures aimed at items previously added to the budget, including the removal of controversial changes to teacher licensing requirements and clarifying language that would allow home schooled students to participate in public school sports and extracurricular activities.
Also included were a wide range of proposals that critics argued could limit the ability of the public to access government records. Those changes included applying open-records balancing tests to records from investigations into officer-involved shootings and making it easier to remove some offenses from the state’s online court records database. What drew the heaviest criticism though was a sweeping proposal to limit what information lawmakers have to make available to the public.
The proposal would allow public officials to keep many of their communications surrounding the drafting of legislation, including notes on research and input into the bill, exempt from the state’s open records law. State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) called the proposal against “the very spirit of Wisconsin,” and argued the only people who want changes like this are those who have something to hide.
While the committee had finished its voting by Thursday evening, adjournment was delayed for several hours as Republicans worked behind the scenes on a possible attempt to insert language in the budget dealing with the state’s prevailing wage law. Some Senate Republicans have indicated a repeal of the law is needed for them to support the budget, even though leadership has so far indicated they plan to take up the issue as separate legislation. After more than two hours of closed door meetings, the committee returned to the room without taking action on the issue, with a final vote on the budget bill coming just after midnight on Friday morning.
While the JFC has finished its work on the budget, the process of getting it through the Legislature still faces a difficult road. The state Assembly was tentatively expected to open debate on the bill next Tuesday or Wednesday, but it remains unclear when the Senate could vote. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has so far indicated he does not yet have the votes to pass the budget in its current form.