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State Government and Political Roundup: Dems announce their package to reform WEDC

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MADISON - Democrats have come out with their own package for reforming the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee has withheld funding increases for the state's job creation agency, until it can prove that it's addressing auditors' concerns of a lack of accountability. Democrats say that's not enough. Stevens Point Senator Julie Lassa, who sits on the WEDC Board, says much more needs to be done to quote, "fix this broken state agency." Some of the items in the Democratic package have been expressed before - like having the board elect its chairman instead of having the governor automatically hold that post. The board would also have the power to hire-and-fire the WEDC's top officers who are now appointed by the governor. The board would also have to sign off on all of the agency's policies - and the board would have a finance committee and a lead director, like many private company boards have. Also, the WEDC would have to provide more information to the Legislature each year.

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If a state committee has its way, Wisconsinites would be able to see what hundreds of communities spend for their local services and projects. The Joint Finance Committee voted 15-1 yesterday to add its own proposal to the new state budget. It would force all Wisconsin communities with over five-thousand residents to submit spending reports to Madison by July of 2015. Those reports would be included in the new Open Book Web site that the Walker administration is creating to provide breakdowns on state government spending and contracts. Republicans said the mandate would provide more transparency for taxpayers. Democrats said it would jack up property taxes, because the mandate does not provide state funding or training for the local leaders to comply with the new reporting. Also, there's no estimate on what it would cost.

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Two groups that sued the state Legislature over its redistricting plan from 2011 have reached an out-of-court settlement. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel said the terms of the deal have not been made public, and it was not clear if there would be further action. Groups of Democrats and Hispanics sued legislative Republicans over the way they realigned Senate and Assembly districts, which critics said was meant to give the GOP an advantage in future elections. A federal court panel found that two Assembly districts had to be drawn again, to make sure Hispanics are represented. Otherwise, the court upheld the maps. The plaintiffs then said they found evidence that Republicans withheld information about the process that the judges had ordered to be released. The GOP allowed the plaintiffs to examine its computers - and by then, numerous documents were deleted. Lawmakers confirmed the deletions, but said they did not violate any orders in doing so. The plaintiffs also said at least 40 e-mails should have been turned over but were not. However, the plaintiffs could not find evidence that anything was withheld that could have struck down the new district maps.

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The State Treasurer would have almost nothing to do, under a budget measure endorsed yesterday by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. Kurt Schuller has kept himself busy by getting unclaimed property back to its rightful owners. That job would be transferred to the Revenue Department under a budget provision endorsed 13-3 yesterday. It would leave Schuller with only one task - chairing the Board of the Commissioner of Public Lands, and he says the panel only meets twice a month for 15 minutes on the phone. Schuller, a Republican, campaigned on a promise that he'd try to eliminate the Treasurer's office - but he's upset that the office is being kept while the duties disappear. It takes a constitutional change to eliminate the Treasurer, and lawmakers have found it easier to dump virtually all of the treasurer's duties since 2011. Senate Finance chair Alberta Darling proposed the latest reduction. She said the Revenue Department was more able to handle the unclaimed property program, and get information out more efficiently. Schuller said he was blindsided, and he called it quote, "incredibly stupid." He said the treasurer's salary was funded by revenues from the unclaimed property program. Now, he says the taxpayers will end up paying for a top official to do virtually nothing. Schuller will not seek a second term next year.

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Democrats and environmentalists were upset, after Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee slashed the budget for nature and recreational land purchases. On a 12-4 party line vote yesterday, the panel reduced the Stewardship program's bonding authority from $60-million dollars a year to $47-and-a-half million next year, and $54-and-a-half million the year after that. From there, the bonding would be limited to $50-million a year through 2020. The DNR would have new limits on how much land it could own, and the agency would have to sell thousands of acres to private interests. Republicans said the program's debt was spiraling out of control, and committee chairman John Nygren (R-Marinette) said people wanted the state to get rid of the Stewardship program. Democrats disagreed. Pleasant Prairie's Bob Wirch said the bonding reductions would anger outdoor enthusiasts who already have trouble finding places for recreation. Amber Meyer Smith of Clean Wisconsin said it's frustrating to see the program "whittled away" - and until now it was quote, "the heart of bi-partisanship." The Stewardship program started in 1989.

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Governor Walker is calling for a two-year tuition freeze at the University of Wisconsin, after reports that the campuses quietly built up $650-million dollars in reserves. The Republican governor also scaled back his proposed funding increase for the UW in the next state budget. His original $181-million-dollar increase is being slashed by %$94-million - and Walker says that money will now be available for things like K-to-12 schools or bigger income tax cuts. Also, the governor pulled back almost $29-million dollars for UW programs aimed at growing the economy. Walker said the university's reserves would have to pay for that. In a memo to the Joint Finance Committee, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said the UW quote, "did not show leadership during a fiscal crisis and instead made the burden of a public higher education heavier while stockpiling cash." UW Regent Gerald Whitburn called it a "sharp rebuke" and he predicted the university would be much more open in the future. UW President Kevin Reilly put a more positive spin on the matter, saying he shares the governor's interest in keeping college affordable. He said the UW would allocate $42-million dollars from other sources to make up for what could have been a two-percent tuition hike for this fall.

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