Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said yesterday he still does not have the votes to pass the state budget, and it seems likely that a $500 million financing plan for a new Milwaukee Bucks stadium will be debated separately instead of as part of the budget, as planned.
Gov. Scott Walker says it makes no difference when the budget passes, and the sense of urgency surrounding budget negotiations shows that lawmakers are “delusional.”
Fitzgerald told 620-WTMJ, Journal Broadcast Group’s conservative talk radio, that he is still working with Republican senators who want to see items “included, eliminated or modified” in the budget. The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has not met since May 29 and has no meetings scheduled.
After winning re-election in November, Gov. Scott Walker said he wanted the budget to pass sooner than usual, presumably so that he could officially launch his presidential campaign. He touted the early approval of his prior two budgets.
But now, despite holding a stronger majority than ever in the Capitol, Walker’s budget is in a stalemate situation and he poo-poohs the delay, saying that that it really doesn’t matter when the budget passes.
In fact, Walker said there’s a “delusional mindset in the Capitol” — a jab at legislative Republicans and Democrats alike — about any harm being done if the budget does not get passed by the end of the fiscal year (June 30).
“If we go a week or two in July, unlike the federal government we don’t shut down,” Walker said. “Nothing happens.”
Republican leaders said their goal was to pass the budget in the Senate and Assembly by July 1, an aggressive timeline that they’re highly unlikely to meet with so much yet unresolved.
The budget negotiations are particularly tense this year due to a $2.3 billion budget deficit created by Walker’s tax and cash giveaway programs to corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals. The crony giveaways were coupled with Walker’s refusal to accept federal tax dollars for health care, rail transportation, Internet expansion and other projects.
Although Walker said it’s wrong to take federal tax dollars — paid for, in part, by Wisconsin taxpayers — for any of the items above, he’s eager to accept U.S. money for pet highway projects, even though audits have shown the majority of them are unneeded. A federal court recently ruled it would not help the state widen Highway 23 due to inflated traffic projections presented by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for that project.
Road builders are among Wisconsin’s most generous campaign donors, which has complicated the issue even more. Walker refuses to raise fees or taxes to pay for the massive construction projects. Such a move would destroy his presidential campaign. Instead, the governor wants to issue bonds to pay for the road work.
But GOP leaders refuse to raise the money that way, arguing that it merely shifts the cost to future taxpayers — a strategy that Walker became famous for when he served as Milwaukee County Executive.
Still, Republican leaders seem hesitant to delay work on the Zoo Interchange near Milwaukee, which remains a sore spot in budget negotiations.
Fitzgerald said Republican senators firmly believed that $800 million in cuts for state highway and transportation projects must not affect the ongoing Zoo Interchange work near Milwaukee. That’s a key difference between Assembly Republicans who want cuts in road funding to be spread evenly throughout the state.
The Zoo Interchange forms the junction of Interstate 94, I-894 and U.S. 45 just west of Milwaukee. The redesign of the interchange began in 2013 and is expected to cost $1.7 billion by the time it’s done in 2018, if it remains on track.
“It’s got to be completed,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not something to mess with. And we’re all going to have egg on our face if the busiest interchange in Wisconsin is hanging there undone for two years. It’s ridiculous.”
The Bucks arena deal is another ongoing source of division in the budget. Fitzgerald said a majority of Senate Republicans want to see the deal removed from the budget and voted on separately. He said that way Democrats from Milwaukee could register their votes in support.
Fitzgerald said one idea that has not been ruled out is placing a surcharge on ticket sales to help pay for the arena. The proposed plan called for $250 million in money from the public and $250 million from current and former Bucks owners.
Elimination of the state’s policy of paying prevailing wages on government construction projects is a third issue holding up budget negotiations. Tea party followers want to get rid of the law, which helps to shore up construction wages in the state as well as construction quality. Democrats and some mainstream Republicans believe the law contributes to maintaining liveable wages in the state.
Fitzgerald said Republicans discussed three alternative plans but have not been able to reach a middle ground. Two Republican senators — Duey Stroebel and Steve Nass — have said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t repeal the prevailing wage at least for local projects.
Fitzgerald said he wasn’t frustrated with the status of budget talks, and his goal remains to have all 19 Republicans vote for the $70 billion, two-year spending plan. There are 14 Democrats in the Senate. That means Fitzgerald can only lose two votes to have enough to pass the plan.
Scott Bauer of The Associated Press contributed to this article.