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.
"I would have enjoyed the opportunity to defend our budget," Vos said.
Democrats said at a news conference after the vote that their decision was strategy, not surrender. Rather than fight a losing battle on the Assembly floor, they promised to tell the public about the budget's shortcomings in hopes of convincing people to vote Republicans out of office next year.
After years of prolonging debate against Republican bills and not having any changes approved, Barca said Democrats decided, "When you keep hitting a brick wall, you've got to try something different."
Republicans had discussed, but decided against, adding a provision to the budget to restrict public access to the site of a proposed mine near Lake Superior. They also decided against making changes to Racine's voucher school program that were expected to increase enrollment by 750 students over two years.
On Tuesday, Vos said the budget would be amended to allow the state Department of Natural Resources to pass emergency rules that would restrict public access to the site. Concerns were raised after authorities last week said protesters slashed tires, damaged equipment, destroyed a geologist's camera and stole her cellphone.
"It was too rushed," Vos said Wednesday in explaining why it wasn't being pursued. "We did not have time to vet out the entire process."
Republican Rep. Mark Honadel, who pressed for restricting access to the site, said he was "not pleased" with the decision because of safety concerns and didn't know why it was changed.
"I thought we had a solid agreement yesterday going in but the day crumbled apart," Honadel said. "I personally believe there's a sense of urgency about this whole thing. I certainly don't want it to escalate."
Some of the 27 last-minute changes the Assembly added to the budget on Wednesday would:
—Repeal a $2,500 cap on a property tax credit program for disabled veterans and their surviving spouses. Changes to reduce benefits for higher-earners in the program would also be removed.
—Delay for at least a year implementation of looser requirements for high-capacity wells. As originally proposed, no one could challenge high-capacity well applications and permits by arguing that the DNR didn't consider the cumulative impact of the well and surrounding wells on the environment.
—Allow families who have students enrolled in the newly created voucher schools outside of Milwaukee and Racine to stay in the program even if their income increases at a later date above the threshold for admittance. The cutoff is 185 percent of poverty. The change would also allow married couples to exceed the income threshold by $7,000.
—Exempt volunteer police and firefighters from requirements that they live within 15 miles of the municipality where they serve. The budget does away with all residency requirements for public workers anywhere in the state, except for public safety workers. They can be restricted to living within 15 miles of the local government where they work.
The changes were approved on a 59-36 vote, with five Democrats voting for it and two Republicans against. Four Republicans did not vote.