Assembly debate starts, collective bargaining may go first
MADISON - "We're ready for it," says Horicon Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald about the long and potentially emotional session that began on Tuesday about the 2011-13 state budget.
But he warned on Newsradio 620 WTMJ's "Wisconsin's Morning News" that "It'll be a long couple days."
Pro-union demonstrators began gathering around the Capitol building as the Assembly went into session at 11:00 a.m. and Democrats then went into caucus.
TODAY'S TMJ4's Jay Olstad says one woman was already removed from Assembly chambers after yelling during the morning session.
The teacher's union, WEAC and the head of the AFL-CIO encouraged members to come to Madison on Tuesday.
Fitzgerald joked that he had packed extra clothing for a debate that he expected to start Tuesday afternoon, while TODAY'S TMJ4's Tom Murray saw a coffee cart rolled into the assembly parlor Tuesday morning in preparation for around-the-clock debate.
The extended debate has to do with a budget that slashes funding for education among many other cuts, and could include the now-voided collective bargaining law.
Fitzgerald's spokesman told Olstad that if the Wisconsin Supreme Court does not make a decision on the collective bargaining law by the time debate begins, that will be the first thing introduced.
Democrats contend that delaying a vote on the budget is the only way to expose budget changes they don't like, and the caucus could produce a number of amendments.
"We want to bring forward some policy choices that we think people in Wisconsin strongly support," said Kenosha Democratic Representative Peter Barca.
“This budget is so far out stride the heritage that we’ve had and the values this state believes in, we want to make sure people are well aware of that.”
Those policy choices could include changes to massive slashes in education funding.
"There's an $800 million cut to K-12 education, and another almost $200 million cut to the colleges and universities. That adds up to a massive, unprecedented cut of education. Also, (there is) an unprecedented expansion of the taxpayer-funded voucher program," explained Milwaukee Democratic Representative Jon Richards, who also spoke on Newsradio 620 WTMJ's "Wisconsin's Morning News."
"I don't think people were asking for a major cut to public education. They certainly weren't asking for this provision that they have to eliminate collective bargaining. There are a number of things we've seen over the last couple of months where Republicans have overreached based on what voters voted for last November. We're going to have a strong debate about this and try to get the budget back in line to reflect the values of middle-class Wisconsin."
For those reasons, and potentially others, Fitzgerald expects Democrats to produce lots of amendments to the budget bill, making this a debate that could last throughout most of this week.
"They can offer up however many they want," said Fitzgerald.
"The budget in the state assembly is normally a day-or-two process. We normally go through the night and into the next morning. When we were the minority last time around, we offered up 132 amendments. I expect them to come prepared and try to amend the budget to the way they see fit, but we feel we have a great product here."
That product, Fitzgerald claims, "is going to turn Wisconsin around," and he says it will include a surplus in the budget by 2013.
"This is a chance for us to stop spending more than we have coming in," said Fitzgerald.
"This is the point when the state's going to cut up the credit card like families do and take a $3.6 billion deficit and turn it into a surplus for the first time in a couple decades without raising taxes or any fees."
"The reforms we are putting into this budget are not only going to help us for this budget, but help us with future budgets."
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state will have a $306 million surplus while cutting taxes by about $24 million over two years.
But to Richards, "It's basically a rubber stamp of Governor (Scott) Walker's proposed budget that raises taxes on working families and slashes services for the middle class, like public education and health care (with) giveaways to political donors and big corporations. Then there are really silly items, like funding a space station in Sheboygan, providing a tax exemption for junk mail, and rolling back child labor laws."
Richards believed that Governor Walker admitted that the rollback of many collective bargaining rights for public workers "does absolutely nothing to balance the budget. I think that we can do much better and make much better decisions for middle class families in Wisconsin."
Debate inside and outside chambers in the State Assembly could be more than contentious, and it certainly will include protesters like what was seen during February and March's scenes inside and outside the Capitol building.
"Some of that has probably died down over time, so I'm not sure what it will be like. We're used to it. We're used to the disruption in committee hearings. We've seen it for the last six months," Fitzgerald said.
"I think it will be fine out on the floor. I'm sure you'll hear a lot of demagoguing that the sky is falling, the 'Chicken Little' story that they've been doing all session long, that Wisconsin will cease to exist as a state after this. I'm not sure what we're going to see today. I don't know if the protests are going to be like they were back then, but I think people have come to grips with what we're doing."
But, Fitzgerald believes "these reforms are going to carry through."
"We see a lot of school districts that have made concessions already. It's working. The flexibility that was met to establish that for locals, instead of laying off thousands of local employees and teachers, seems to be working."
Richards would rather see other steps come in the budget.
"You can keep closing the corporate tax loopholes that we closed in the last budget to make sure that everyone pays their fair share, and also make sure that we make some smart investments in education and preventative health care," said Richards. "Those items really help us down the line and make us a much better place to live."
Conservatives have said they would back an amendment that would exempt transit workers from collective bargaining restrictions.
That move would preserve federal transit funding.