MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly passed the state budget Wednesday after Democrats decided against offering any amendments or prolonging debate, saying the $70 billion spending plan is so bad it can't be fixed.
The budget would cut income taxes for all tax filers by $650 million over two years, expand statewide private school vouchers currently only available in Milwaukee and Racine, and tighten income eligibility under Medicaid, forcing nearly 90,000 people into federally subsidized exchanges to purchase insurance.
While Republicans praised the plan, saying it would help grow the economy through tax cuts and provide parents more education choices, Democrats called it an irresponsible, extreme roadmap that doesn't reflect the state's values.
"We believe there's no hope for this budget," said Minority Leader Peter Barca, the only Democrat who spoke against the plan before the vote.
The budget passed 55-42. Three Republicans — Reps. Steve Nass, Howard Marklein and Steve Kestell — joined all 39 Democrats in opposition. It now heads to the Senate, where Republicans have an 18-15 majority. Debate there was to begin Thursday.
Moderate Republican senators have been pushing for even more changes to the budget, but Republican GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said it had the votes to pass.
"I think we're in real good shape now," Fitzgerald said.
Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate, so no more than one Republican can vote against it given unanimous Democratic opposition.
The budget must pass both houses in identical form before being sent to Gov. Scott Walker, who has extensive power to veto individual items. Fitzgerald said he had received no assurances from Walker on what would or would not be vetoed.
At the beginning of debate, Vos highlighted what he saw as virtues of the budget, including the income tax cut and freeze on both property tax increases and University of Wisconsin tuition. He said Republicans addressed concerns they heard from citizens around the state.
"Wisconsin is proud of this budget," he said.
But Barca decried the expansion of voucher schools, the rejection of the Medicaid expansion and the income tax cuts that give more of the benefit to the wealthy.
"You're putting extremism before logic," he said.
Budget debate was originally slated to last 12 1/2 hours over two days in the Assembly. But on Tuesday, only 15 minutes was spent on the plan as Republicans negotiated in secret over more than two dozen changes that were adopted Wednesday. The vote to pass came at after just over an hour of debate when Democrats decided not to pursue any changes.
The move was surprising, especially after Democrats drafted more than 200 amendments and just two years ago dragged out debate for more than 60 straight hours on Walker's proposal taking away public workers' collective bargaining rights.
Republicans acknowledged being caught flat-footed by the Democratic decision.
"They decided to retreat and go home," said Republican Majority Leader Scott Suder.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Democrats did a disservice to their constituents.