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State Government and Political Round-up: Assembly takes up budget today

MADISON - Republican leaders are still confident that the current version of the new budget is basically the one that will pass both houses this week. The state Assembly is scheduled to start debating the two-year, $68-billion package of spending and new policies. They're expected to take a break tonight before approving the budget tomorrow.

It would then go to the state Senate on Thursday. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) says that what she calls a "technical amendment" is being drafted - but she would not go into details. Among the main bones of contention among majority Republicans is the proposed ending of residency requirements for local government employees - and new rule changes favoring high-capacity wells at mega-dairy farms. On the Assembly side, Whitewater Republican Steve Nass said yesterday he would vote against the budget - but there would have to be 10 other defectors to avoid whatever the leadership comes up with. In the Senate, Republicans Dale Schultz of Richland Center and Rob Cowles of Green Bay have expressed major reservations about the budget. The Senate leaders can only afford one defector to maintain its status quo. Among other things, the budget cuts state income taxes by almost $650-million dollars. It also expands private school vouchers statewide, rejects an expansion of Medicaid under Obama-care, freezes UW tuition for two years, allows state buildings to be sold, and forces those on unemployment and food stamps to work harder in seeking jobs to keep their benefits.


Both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature are meeting this morning. The Assembly will spend the day considering the proposed state budget for the next two years. The Senate will take up a new venture capital program, and a bill that keeps a closer eye on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. Under the venture capital bill, taxpayers would provide $25-million to help a variety of new businesses get off the ground. Another $50-million would come from private sources. The Assembly passed the bill on a 91-2 vote earlier this month. Most Democrats supported the measure, even though they were concerned that none of the money would go to medical bio-tech firms. The bill involving the Economic Development Corporation is designed to provide more accountability, after a critical state audit which showed that the WEDC never adopted legally-required policies, and did not keep track of loans and tax breaks to businesses for creating jobs. The bill would have the corporation's board members serve six-year terms, instead of at the pleasure of the governor. The agency would be audited every year instead of the current two years. All WEDC employees would be subject to state ethics laws.


It's technically called the state budget - but a Republican lawmaker says it should include a ban on public access where Gogebic Taconite is exploring the feasibility of a new iron ore mine. The two-year spending-and-policy package will be up for discussion in the state Assembly today. South Milwaukee Republican Mark Honadel says he'll ask his majority GOP colleagues to add budget language that keeps protestors away like those which caused two-thousand dollars of vandalism at the mining site last week. The public currently has access to the land where Gogebic Taconite is drilling eight exploratory holes. It's the first stage in the possible development of a one-and-a-half billion dollar mine along a four-mile stretch in Ashland and Iron counties. A local mining education group hiked on the site Saturday, and about 50 people took part with no incidents. The head of that group, Frank Koehn, says it's crucial for people to see the site, so they can learn what its impact will be. Honadel says people are kept away from logging sites on public land - so it only makes sense to keep people away from mining activities. Honadel says it might be too late to get something in the budget, but he says the protests must be addressed as soon as possible. Senate GOP Leader Scott Fitzgerald says his house is also in the early stages of its own plan to limit access. Last week, officials said people who hid their faces slashed tires, damaged equipment, destroyed an employee's camera, and took her cell-phone. Gogebic Taconite's Bob Seitz called it "eco-terrorism."


The state Justice Department has filed suit against a debt-resolution company from Chicago, for allegedly taking millions-of-dollars in illegal fees from Wisconsinites. The attorney general's office said the former Legal Helpers portrayed itself as a law firm, while actually operating as an unlicensed debt settlement service. It ran between 2009 and last April. State Justice officials said 19-hundred financially-strapped Wisconsinites enrolled - and they were illegally charged fees of up to $900 up-front, plus $50-to-75 a month. According to the state's complaint, one consumer paid 18-thousand dollars to Legal Helpers - and the firm never tried to negotiate the person's debt levels. The Justice Department said Legal Helpers used non-lawyers in an out-of-state third party to deal with debt cases - and consumers complained that they could never talk to an attorney. The state seeks up to 10-thousand-dollars per violation, restitution to customers, and possible prison time for the former company's owners.


Wisconsin's first state-inspected meat plant has begun to sell its product across state lines, as part of a federal-and-state agreement reached in 2011. Governor Scott Walker said yesterday that Wyttenbach Meats of Prairie du Sac has become the first Wisconsin company to ship products to other states under the agreement. The Badger State is one of three to sign a deal with the USDA under rules established two years ago. It allows interstate sales of meats which are handled by state inspectors. Wisconsin has 272 state-inspected meat facilities. State agriculture officials say many of those processes are interested in the program.


The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a one-and-a-quarter million dollar judgment should stand against Air Wisconsin. Veteran pilot William Hoeper won a defamation lawsuit against Air Wisconsin in his home state of Colorado. Court records said his job as a pilot was in jeopardy, after he failed four times to get approval to fly a new aircraft, and had angry words with another employee in Virginia. Soon after that, Hoeper was a passenger on a United flight back home - but the plane was returned to its departure gate after Air Wisconsin identified Hoeper as a potential threat. He was removed, but never charged in court with anything criminal. Air Wisconsin unsuccessfully argued that Hoeper's defamation suit should have been dropped, because the airline has immunity for reporting security threats in the wake of 9-11. The Colorado Supreme Court said Air Wisconsin was not exempted from legal action. The Obama administration was among those asking for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case - and to reverse the Colorado ruling.


Minority Democrats asked moderate Republicans today to march with them instead of the GOP leadership, in voting on the proposed state budget for the next two years. One of the most conservative Assembly members, Republican Steve Nass of Whitewater, said today he would vote against the budget when it comes up in his house tomorrow. Nass said he opposed spending that would create a $505-million deficit in the next budget - the return of bail bondsmen - plus what he called a flawed voucher expansion program. Nass said the income limits for getting private school vouchers was too low. State public school superintendent Tony Evers joined Democrats today in meeting with education supporters in Madison, Green Bay, Wausau, and the La Crosse area. Among other things, they want the school choice expansion scrapped, and use the money for more public school aid. Democrats want to expand school aid by $275 a student - much higher than the $100 increase Republicans offer for this year, and $150-the next. Democrats need 10 more Republican defectors besides Nass to get what they want in the Assembly. It's more likely they'll win something in the Senate, where the GOP budget needs a three-vote majority to pass.


Governor Scott Walker will speak at a business conference in Japan in a couple months. The Midwest U.S.-Japan Association Conference begins September eighth. The main purpose is to establish business opportunities and cooperation between the Midwest and Japan. Nine Midwest states are part of the group, which seeks to showcase the region's potential for foreign investment and exports. Governors of five of the nine states are scheduled to be speakers.