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Capital City Sunday: Budget gets bipartisan votes; Evers mulls line item options

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MADISON (WKOW) -- For the first time in more than a decade, a legislative budget in Wisconsin got votes from both parties in both chambers.

Four Assembly Democrats and three Democratic senators joined the GOP in voting for the Republican re-write of Gov. Tony Evers's budget. GOP leaders put together a budget than included about $3.4 billion in tax cuts; nearly $2.4 billion of it comes from an income tax cut that reduces the rate from 6.27 percent to 5.3 percent for anyone making between $24,000 and $264,000.

While Democrats worry too much of the savings will flow into the accounts of people making more than $100,000 per year - more than 60 percent of the income tax cut money - Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), a co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said that was simply the outcome of cutting taxes for the largest tax bracket.

"Obviously, if you pay more in taxes, your cut ends up being a little more," Born said. "That's just the reality of some math but this is definitely a middle class tax cut."

Democrats voting for the budget include Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Mason). Most Democrats argued the budget missed opportunities for generational public works projects and a significant boost to schools.

The budget process was turned on its head when the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau released a memo in early June stating projected tax collections through 2023 were now $4.4 billion greater than previously estimated.

"We had the resources to invest in areas that we need to invest in," said Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee). "Local government and schools and, on top of that, we had enough resources to do a tax cut as well. We could have done all of it."

Goyke said if he were governor, he'd restore cuts Republicans made to public transit in the state's two biggest cities and address juvenile reform. The budget includes 50 percent cuts to transit services in Milwaukee and Madison.

Born said he wasn't very worried about line item vetoes, touting how much more slim the legislative budget was compared to Evers's.

"We hit most of the areas and did a good budget for Wisconsin," Born said. "He should be able to sign it in its entirety."

Goyke said he had no animosity toward the Democrats who did vote for the budget.

"We're a relatively big and diverse state and so I had specific problems and issues with the final document so I voted against," Goyke said. "Obviously, some of my Democratic colleagues had a different view and different perspective but that's elective politics."

Walk the line...item

With the budget on his desk, Evers now has three choices.

Two of them - signing the bill as it is and outright vetoing the whole thing - are extremely unlikely. Instead, Evers is most likely to do what Wisconsin governors have done for the past two generations: exercise the line item veto and remove pieces of the budget.

Evers indicated he was looking at editing the budget as opposed to signing or rejecting it during an event Thursday in Green Bay to sign a deal allowing sports betting at Oneida casinos.

"Looking forward to finally getting it spending lots of time over the next few days going through it and seeing what, what we're gonna do with different parts of it that may be changed," Evers said.

The governor's office did not respond to a message Friday asking whether Evers had received the budget yet. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the governor has six days, excluding Sundays, to act once they've received the budget bill.

How did we get here?

Wisconsin governors once enjoyed broad line item powers, down the the ability to remove letters from a word and change the meaning altogether - think changing 'cannot' to 'can' - but the ability to do 'Vanna White vetoes' was removed by voters through referendum in 1990.

Former longtime governor Tommy Thompson made the most use of the partial veto, both before and after the Vanna White veto went away. He issued a record-high 457 line item vetoes in 1991; that record still stands.

Voters narrowed the partial budget veto again in 2008 when they removed the ability to remove words from multiple sentences to create an entirely different sentence.

"It's definitely true that the budget- the partial veto power of the governor has really been reduced from where it was 20 years ago," said Jason Stein, Research Director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum. "It was breathtaking in its scope and power."

Stein said another set of challenges from when Evers signed his first budget in 2019 has only made the governor's line item powers even murkier.

Challenges to four of Evers's partial vetoes went before the state supreme court. The court voted to reject three of them and upheld the other.

"There was no clear, controlling majority opinion that said 'OK, here's what the governor can and can't do with his partial veto and why,'" Stein said. "So I think that leaves it to potential litigation again this time around."

The fiscal bureau put together a detailed review of the line item veto, its historical use, and where everything may stand following last summer's rulings.

A president's purpose

When the White House first announced President Joe Biden would be in Wisconsin last Tuesday, it billed the visit as one promoting "agriculture and rural economies."

Yet, Biden ended up speaking at the bus depot in La Crosse, promoting a sweeping infrastructure bill that would put people to work.

Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse, said the pivot likely reflected how much Biden values getting an infrastructure bill through Congress, seeing it as essential to Democrats' chances of retaining control of the House and Senate the 2022 mid-terms.

"His big bet is that he can deliver on these tangible areas of policy that have real world impacts on people, that impact their quality of life, that they can see," Chergosky said.

Chergosky also noted La Crosse was also a strategic selection for where in the battleground state Biden would visit. Of Wisconsin's eight congressional districts, Democrat Rep. Ron Kind's is the most competitive.

"Maintaining control of this House seat here in Western Wisconsin is not only huge for the Wisconsin Democratic Party but it's huge for the Democratic Party's overall hopes of maintaining control of the House of Representatives majority," Chergosky said.

The intrigue currently surrounding the bill is whether it can line up enough bipartisan support to net 60 votes in the Senate; if not, the pressure would then be on Biden to get all 50 Senate Democrats behind a potentially larger package that Democrats would pass through reconciliation.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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