MADISON, Wis. — One of five Wisconsin senators who refused to support the state budget said Thursday that he has changed his mind, leaving the Senate just one vote short of passage a day before the chamber plans to convene to take up the $76 billion spending plan.
The budget was supposed to be done July 1, but Republicans spent the summer quarreling among themselves over how to best fund roads in the face of a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the state’s transportation fund.
Current spending levels continue until a new budget is in place, ensuring state government can continue to operate, but as the weeks have slid by questions about why Republicans can’t get the spending plan done when they control both legislative houses have grown more intense.
Assembly Republicans passed the budget on Wednesday, sending it on to the Senate. Republicans control that chamber 20-13; they need at least 17 votes to pass anything. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he wants to vote on the budget on Friday but five GOP senators — Steve Nass, Duey Stroebel, Chris Kapenga, Dave Craig and Robert Cowles — have refused to support the document. Their stances have left Fitzgerald in a quandary.
Cowles said in a telephone interview Thursday that he now plans to vote “yes.” He said he initially opposed the budget because it contains too many policy items that have nothing to do with the state’s finances. But over the last day he realized Republican leaders aren’t going to remove anything, he said. He now hopes Gov. Scott Walker will use his veto powers to erase the items.
“The powers that be, the people who wanted the policy in, had more leverage than people like myself,” Cowles said. “We’re to the end point (in the budget process). So I am a ‘yes.'”
Nass, Stroebel and Kapenga, meanwhile, have developed a list of changes they want to see in the budget before they’ll vote for it. They include prohibiting the University of Wisconsin System from spending $4 million on diversity training, allowing municipalities to impose wheel taxes only through referendums; repealing the state’s prevailing wage on Jan. 1 and increasing the income limit for participating in the statewide voucher program to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.
Prevailing wage requirements lay out a minimum wage for workers on state construction projects. The voucher program subsidizes K-12 private school tuition.
Aides for Nass and Stroebel said they expected the senators to speak privately with Fitzgerald on Thursday.
Kapenga said in a telephone interview that he expected to speak with Fitzgerald on Thursday. He doesn’t want to be an obstructionist but the list of things he believes are wrong with the budget is “too long to go through.” Everything he, Nass and Stroebel have proposed has been debated publicly in recent weeks and there’s no guarantee any of it would pass as stand-alone bills, he said.
“This package gets me closer to saying ‘yes’ to it,” Kapenga said. I’m not voting on (any stand-alone bills) down the road.”
Nass aide Mike Mikalsen said Nass remained a ‘no’ vote late Thursday afternoon. Stroebel told WISN radio talk show host Mark Belling that the three senators campaigned on the items on the list and they’ll make the budget better.
Craig didn’t immediately return a message Thursday morning.
The version of the budget the Assembly passed calls for borrowing $400 million more for roads, delaying projects and raising registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles by $100. For a moment, the path to passage finally looked clear. Then the five senators brought the process to a halt.
If the Senate makes any changes to the budget the document would have to go back to the Assembly since both houses must pass an identical plan before it can go to Walker for his signature.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters Thursday that his chamber would reject any Senate changes. He called Nass, Stroebel and Kapenga’s demands a “ransom list” and accused them of holding the entire state hostage so they can get their pet projects passed.
“We’re not going to go back and renegotiate things,” Vos said. “For me, the budget process is over.”
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.