PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a $70 billion, two-year state budget Sunday that he said invests in state education, residents and infrastructure, but that Democrats complained will mostly help the wealthy.
The budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature includes all of Walker's priorities, including a $650 million income tax cut, expansion of private school vouchers and changes to the state's Medicaid and food stamp programs.
Walker signed the budget in Pleasant Prairie, on the border with Illinois, and compared Wisconsin favorably with its neighbor in terms of cutting taxes and controlling spending. Those attending the ceremony were treated to kringle from a Racine bakery. The new budget makes the Danish treat the state's official pastry.
Walker and Republican leaders who attended the signing made much of its nearly $1 billion in income and other tax cuts. Rep. John Nygren, a Marinette Republican and co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee, said seeing the tax cuts signed into law took some of the sting out of Walker's vetoes.
Walker made 57 changes to the budget using a veto power that allows him to cut words from sentences to change their meaning and remove individual digits to create new numbers. His two most significant vetoes eliminated provisions creating a bounty hunter program and kicking an investigative journalism center off the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Nygren and Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who also attended the ceremony, described the vetoes as unsurprising. Walker vetoed similar bounty hunter legislation last year, and Fitzgerald said many lawmakers had questions about the journalism center provision after the budget committee added it at the last minute.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen praised Walker for vetoing the bounty hunter program, which had strong opposition from those in law enforcement. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said the move eliminated "the most obvious example of corruption in this budget," although he found many other faults with the spending plan.
Andy Hall, executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism, thanked Walker for the veto and said in a statement that the center was using the occasion to kick off a fundraising drive that it hopes will raise more than $100,000 a year to help pay for student internships.
The budget rejects the federal Medicaid expansion, as Walker wanted, and reduces income eligibility for the program in Wisconsin to the federal poverty level. But, it also removes caps on enrollment.
"Going forward, everyone living in poverty in this state will have access to health care," Walker said.
He went on to say, however, that the "biggest, boldest reform" in the budget was new work requirements for people on food stamps. Able-bodied adults must spend at least 20 hours a week working or getting trained for a job, or they will be limited to three months of benefits over three years. Walker described this as a kindness.
"We say it's time to get the training, and the access to training so that when a job becomes available, you are ready to get in the game," he said.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, of Kenosha, described the budget as one that "fails the middle class" and "includes what may be the worst decision made in our state in a generation — a health care plan that covers 85,000 fewer people and costs taxpayers an additional $120 million."
Van Hollen expressed satisfaction with the budget's new DNA collection rules, which he said "fairly balances public safety and privacy concerns."
Under the budget, police can collect DNA from anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony, although the material won't be analyzed until a court determines there is probable cause of their guilt. Anyone convicted of any crime also must provide their DNA. Previously, only convicted felons and sex offenders had to provide samples.
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said it doesn't make sense to collect DNA for some felonies, such as waking a bear, but he thought there would be time before the provision went into effect to make some changes.
"I think the attorney general has oversold (the effectiveness of) DNA collection upon arrest," he said.
School voucher opponents had wondered whether Walker would cut caps to the statewide expansion, but the governor didn't. He did veto a budget amendment that would have allowed existing voucher schools in Milwaukee and Racine to accept students eligible for the statewide expansion without having them count toward the cap.
Walker said he wanted to show "my word was good" after agreeing to limit the expansion to 500 students next year and 1,000 the year after that.
Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who voted against the budget, said he was glad to see Walker honor the caps, but he believed the voucher expansion coupled with too-big tax cuts would lay "a foundation of instability for Wisconsin which will resound across the country and around the world."
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau has predicted the budget plan will create a $505 million shortfall going into the 2015-17 biennium, assuming state tax revenues and expenditures don't change. Such a shortfall is commonly referred to as the state's structural deficit.