Governor Walker proposes deep cuts to Wisconsin school budgets

The union-busting governor wants to implement $1 billion in cuts to public education

Topics: Wisconsin, Budget Showdown,

Governor Walker proposes deep cuts to Wisconsin school budgetsWisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses a joint session of the Legislature at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1, 2011. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers have been protesting the governor's budget for 14 days at the Capitol. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)(Credit: AP)

Gov. Scott Walker is plowing ahead with his full plan for balancing Wisconsin’s budget, proposing massive cuts to public schools even as he faces a stalemate over his proposal to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights.

With Senate Democrats still missing, Walker presented the second part of his two-year spending plan to the Legislature on Tuesday. It relies on getting concessions from government employees to help pay for about $1 billion cuts in aid to schools, counties and cities while avoiding any tax or fee increases, furloughs or widespread layoffs as lawmakers grapple with a projected $3.6 billion shortfall.

Jamie Domini, a project coordinator at Badger Rock Middle School in Madison, said Walker’s proposal — which includes a 9 percent cut in aid to schools amounting to about $900 million — would “completely gut the public education system in Wisconsin.”

“It’s just so frustrating,” Domini said.

Walker, whose cost-cutting ideas have stirred a national debate over public-sector unions, said it was time for government to be “leaner and cleaner.”

“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 says eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers would give state agencies, local governments and school districts flexibility to react quickly to the cuts. But his plan to do that is in limbo after Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote. The proposal has drawn thousands of protesters to the Capitol over the last three weeks.

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Although he isn’t calling for immediate layoffs, Walker’s budget would put tremendous pressure on schools and local governments, which would be asked to shoulder huge cuts without raising property taxes to make up the difference. Also, some state workers may be forced out of their jobs under his consolidation of juvenile prisons and other cost-saving moves.

“It feels like we’re announcing a going out of business sale,” state Rep. Cory Mason, a Democrat from Racine who criticized Walker for proposing cuts to education when trying to rebound from the recession. Assembly Democrats refused to stand and greet the governor.

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 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.

Kelly McMahon, who teaches kindergarten in Milwaukee, said her school was already so underfunded that she spent $3,000 of her own money this year on supplies such as books, construction paper and paint.

“I’m terrified that I’d have even more coming out of my own pocket (if the budget passes) because the supplies aren’t going to be there,” said McMahon, 32. “This would be extremely devastating to our schools.”

Local leaders also expressed concerns about how they would deal with cuts. Cities would get nearly $60 million less in aid, an 8.8 percent cut, under Walker’s plan, while 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.

“There aren’t enough paper clips to save you a million dollars,” said Racine Mayor John Dickert. “We’ve trimmed out all the fat.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat Walker defeated in the governor’s race, said the cuts would put libraries, public health care services and others at risk.

Walker also proposed a $500 million cut in Medicaid spending, which would be achieved through a number of changes that include increasing co-pays and deductibles and requiring participants in SeniorCare to be also be enrolled in Medicare Part D. Overall state spending on the program would increase by $1.2 billion, largely to replace reduced federal money.

Walker asked for $82 million in tax cuts, including an expanded exclusion for capital gains realized on investments made in Wisconsin-based businesses. The Legislature previously approved more than $117 million in Walker-backed tax cuts that take effect later this year.

Walker targeted many law changes passed by Democrats in recent years, including a provision awarding prisoners time off their sentences for good behavior. Instead, Walker would reinstitute a truth-in-sentencing law that he sponsored while a member of the Assembly.

Over the next several months, the Republican-controlled Legislature will review Walker’s budget and offer revisions, with the expectation that lawmakers would vote by early summer.

Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers in Madison, Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee and David Lieb in Racine contributed to this report.

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