Mixed signals come over Wis. budget

By Scott Bauer 
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Republican lawmakers are still trying to reach a deal on Wisconsin’s late budget, even though Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday they had an agreement “in principle.”

Republican legislative leaders met privately again Tuesday to discuss outstanding remaining items that have held up passage of a budget deal for six weeks. Republicans have said many times in recent months that they were close to a budget deal only to find themselves unable to agree on the final outstanding issues — primarily how much to borrow for roads.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, after meeting with his Senate counterpart Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, stressed that talks were ongoing.

“It’s not a done deal,” Vos said in a statement. “We have similar goals and are working toward a resolution. I wouldn’t say we have an agreement, we have ideas.”

Walker told reporters earlier Tuesday that there was a deal “in principle.” Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said in an interview that “I think we have a framework of a deal.”

“There’s a good likelihood we could come to an agreement yet this week,” Nygren said, later stressing that no deal has been finalized.

But both Walker and Nygren said Tuesday that they expected the budget to be passed by mid-September.

A tentative agreement on Wisconsin’s late state budget would include about $400 million in new borrowing to pay for roads and impose a higher fee on electric vehicles but would not raise the gas tax or regular vehicle registration fees, Nygren said.

The state budget is seven weeks late, an embarrassment for Republicans who control the entire Legislature and governor’s office. Spending levels from the prior budget have continued during the impasse, easing the pressure on Walker and legislative Republicans to reach agreement. But the longer it’s delayed, the more impact not having a budget will have on school districts trying to set their budgets and road construction projects that need additional funding to proceed.

Walker and Nygren both said Tuesday that the framework of the budget deal would not increase gas taxes or vehicle registration fees, something the governor and Senate Republicans had pushed to achieve. Nygren said it would increase vehicle registration on electric and hybrid vehicles about $100 a year, to compensate for them not paying as much in gas tax, but Walker said that item was still being negotiated.

The Senate wanted to eliminate the personal property tax, which is primarily paid by businesses on property they own, including furniture, boats and machinery. Nygren said the deal would reduce that tax by about $73 million a year, but not eliminate it.

Nygren said the budget would also get the core of the Zoo interchange project near Milwaukee completed.

He said the plan would include about $410 million borrowing for roads, which includes $250 million to rebuild Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois border. That money is included in a separate bill extending $3 billion in tax incentives to Foxconn Technology Group that the Assembly passed last week.

Walker and lawmakers have discussed borrowing levels between $500 million and $850 million. Assembly Republicans have argued against additional borrowing without raising revenue to pay for it.

Another item being discussed is whether to loosen the income limits for the voucher program.

Current limits are 185 percent of the federal poverty level, but there have been talks of raising it to 300 percent, which is the cut-off to participate in the Milwaukee program. If the change is made, the income cut-off for a family of four would increase from $45,263 to $73,401.

Nygren said he hoped to have the Joint Finance Committee meet next week to vote on the remaining education issues with transportation perhaps the week after that, with the full Legislature finishing the budget in mid-September. Walker laid out a similar timeline.

“We’ve made progress,” Nygren said. “I still believe that we’re leaving significant challenge in the next budget for transportation. In politics, you need willing partners and the Senate is not willing to look at revenues and the governor isn’t either so we live to fight another day.”

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