Wisconsin governor proposes deep cuts for schools

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After focusing for weeks on his proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday presented his full budget — a plan that cuts $1.5 billion in aid to public schools, local government and Medicaid but avoids any tax or fee increases, furloughs or widespread layoffs.

Walker said the cuts could be paid for in large part by forcing government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits. And the governor whose cost-cutting ideas have stirred a national debate over public-sector unions gave no indication he would soften his demand to reduce their power at the negotiating table.

“This is a reform budget,” Walker told lawmakers inside the Assembly chamber as protesters on the floor below screamed, banged on drums and blew horns. “It is about getting Wisconsin working again. And to make that happen, we need a balanced budget that works — and an environment where the private sector can create 250,000 jobs over the next four years.”

Walker’s legislation has drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol over the last three weeks, and tensions were still high as Walker outlined the budget during a joint session of the Legislature convened under heavy security. Assembly Democrats refused to stand as the governor arrived to speak.

“It feels like we’re announcing a going-out-of-business sale,” said state Rep. Cory Mason, a Democrat from Racine who criticized Walker’s proposed cuts to education.

Walker’s budget places “the entire burden of Wisconsin’s budget shortfall on our children, our most vulnerable citizens in need of health care and long-term care, and our dedicated public employees,” said Robert Kraig, director of the consumer-advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

The governor released his two-year spending plan in part to support his argument that public-worker concessions are essential to confront a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall. His proposal to eliminate most collective bargaining remains in limbo after Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote.

Wisconsin “cannot grow if our people are weighed down paying for a larger and larger government, a government that pays its workers unsustainable benefits that are out of line with the private sector,” he said. “We need a leaner and cleaner state government.”

By eliminating most collective bargaining, Walker says, state agencies, local governments and school districts will have flexibility to react quickly to the cuts.

The budget will put tremendous pressure on schools and local governments, which will be asked to shoulder huge cuts without raising property taxes to make up the difference.

Walker’s budget includes a nearly 9 percent cut in aid to schools, which would amount to a reduction of nearly $900 million. The governor also proposed requiring school districts to reduce their property tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil — a move that makes it more difficult for schools to make up the lost money.

Additionally, cities would get nearly $60 million less in aid, an 8.8 percent cut. Counties would lose more than $36 million, a 24 percent reduction. They would not be allowed to increase property taxes except to account for new construction.

He proposed a $500 million cut to Medicaid, which would be achieved through a number of changes that include increasing co-payments and deductibles and requiring participants in SeniorCare to be enrolled in Medicare Part D, too.

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