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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Fair
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Wisconsin Assembly passes 2011-2012 budget in early morning party-line vote

The Assembly voted on the budget shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
Credit:Alison Bauter
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At the end of an "extraordinary session" that ran into early Thursday morning, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the state's 2011-2012 budget, advancing the long-debated legislation to the Senate with amendments from Republicans on school choice and WiscNet.

Just after 3 a.m., following 13 hours of heated debate, the Assembly voted to pass the bill 60-38, with all Republicans and the Assembly's one independent in favor, and all Democrats opposed.

Despite the long hours on the floor, Assembly debate stayed true to recent patterns. Democratic representatives offered and defended a list of amendments, only to have Republicans table each one before offering their own, a package full of last-minute tweaks including provisions to maintain WiscNet funding for two years and remove Green Bay voucher school expansion programs from the bill.

Early in the afternoon, Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Milwaukee) summed up the terms of the debate, saying, Republicans' "sense of truth and reality is quite different than what we see."

The same could be said for Democrats.

From the outset, Republicans defended their budget bill and the "tough choices" they made in crafting it, including cuts to education and MediCare in order to maintain a surplus for the first time in decades.

"We said, 'It's time for the government to go on a diet,' and that's exactly what we do in this bill," said Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington), lauding the GOP bill for staying in the black.

But Dems saw the opposite, demanding Republicans explain how they can claim to have a surplus yet "can't pay the bills" for education, health care and more.

Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) attacked the budget for its "gross mistruths," saying, "This budget is the CEOs against the Average Joe's. It's meant to benefit the haves and punish the have-nots."

In the hopes of rectifying this, Democrats offered a "Big Ten" series of amendment packages. More than 10 hours and countless passionate speeches later, Republicans had tabled every one.

Nonetheless, some of the Democrats' provisions resurfaced in the GOP amendment.

In the amendment, Republicans detailed the removal of the Green Bay voucher school expansion program, although vouchers will still spread to Racine and throughout Milwaukee County school districts.

Similarly, the amendment restored $37 million in federal dollars to maintain the University of Wisconsin System's WiscNet broadband Internet program, under the condition that the program be audited by the state within two years.

Additionally, the Republican amendment removed a requirement that public works projects exceeding $100,000 must be done by private contractors. It also changed the budget to ensure public officials' ethics statements can be emailed, rather than forcing constituents to travel to Madison, and undid changes to the state's eminent domain law that would have made it harder for homeowners to challenge a government decision to take their land.

Despite reconciliation on these points, the Democrats still lost out on their bid to maintain state funding for preventative care through Planned Parenthood, to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit and more.

"This budget desecrates our proud Wisconsin tradition of supporting the middle class -- the backbone of our state," Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said in a statement, reiterating that Republicans "broke promises" by increasing spending, hiking fees and increasing borrowing.

For his part, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) says he see little room for argument.

"When all this is said and done, Wisconsin is going to be in the black for the first time in decades -- and that's hard to argue with," said Fitzgerald.

The Senate is taking up the budget bill today.

Protesters and observers, who crowded the Assembly gallery last night but dwindled by the final vote, are returning to the Senate gallery for today's debate, and a rally will be held at 5:30 p.m. outside the Capitol.

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