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Joint Finance Committee approves new budget

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news Ellsworth, 54011
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MADISON - A new state budget was endorsed today that would cut taxes, reform Medicaid, expand private school choice, freeze UW tuition, make it harder to keep jobless-and-food stamp benefits, and protect large dairy farms - among other things.

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After an all-night session that included 10 hours of secret GOP negotiations, the Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 at 6:15 a.m. to send the full budget to the Assembly. Both houses expect to act on the budget in time for the package to take effect on July first as scheduled. While most of us were sleeping, Republicans hammered out final deals to expand income tax cuts to $650-million - with all workers getting something.

Some of the last measures the committee added were a limited expansion of private school vouchers statewide - tax breaks of up to 10-thousand dollars a student to pay for private school tuition - a pilot program to bring back bail bondsmen in five counties despite heavy judicial opposition - and ending the UW's involvement in the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

As you might expect, the Republicans talked mostly about the tax cuts, with reductions in all five brackets and a merger of the two middle brackets. Democrats said the money should be used instead to pay for public schools which lost state aid in the last budget. The G-O-P did raise public school aid by 150-dollars per student in each of the next two years.

Leaders in both houses hope this version will be the final budget - with none of the horse-trading and earmarks normally added by both houses in the final days before a new budget is due in late June. It remains to be seen whether majority Republicans have the 50 votes they'll need to pass the current version in the Assembly. Last week, 11 GOP members demanded higher tax cuts, which the new version has - less borrowing for road projects and new buildings - and a removal of the requirement that DNA samples be taken from arrested felony suspects and misdemeanor convicts. The budget still includes the requirement, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maryland's version of a DNA collection law on Monday.

Also, the proposed budget freezes UW tuition for two years, in response to millions in surplus university funds that were recently uncovered. It allows state-owned property to be sold, with the Legislature's blessing - including university buildings. At least part of the Common Core education standards that Wisconsin adopted three years ago would be put on hold for further review. The finance panel also eliminated the requirement that a single company provide a new statewide database of school students. Central Wisconsin lawmakers promoted the measure to prevent schools from having to change software providers, as many of their own databases are supplied by Skyward of Stevens Point, which lost out on a contract for the statewide project.

The budget also puts a squeeze on jobless workers, in part to pay back a half-billion dollars the state owes the federal government for keeping benefits flowing during the Recession. The new budget requires those on unemployment to look for four jobs a week instead of the current two. Food-Share recipients would have to work or get job training to keep their benefits.

Lawmakers also used the budget to help the developers of a large dairy farm in central Wisconsin win a lawsuit from neighbors who oppose the project. The finance version prohibits legal action against water wells, if the DNR chooses not to study the impact of those projects on neighboring wells.

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