Wisconsin State Senate Passes Budget in Party-Line Vote

The Wisconsin State Senate passed the Assembly's version of the budget late Thursday night after nine hours of spirited debate, sending the $66 billion spending plan to Governor Walker for his signature.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure 19-14 along strictly partisan lines. Lawmakers debated late into the evening amid audible reactions from gallery spectators and a boisterous rally on the front steps of the Capitol. Several audience members in the Senate chamber were removed during the course of the debate for disrupting the legislative session.

Dismantling democracy -- one bill at a timeLegislators lobbed various accusations at each other throughout the day, with members from each party trying to claim that their vision for the state's fiscal future fell most in line with core Wisconsin values and ideals. Democratic Senators focused their attacks on GOP budget cuts to schools and health care programs for elderly and disabled persons, while Republicans defended their austerity measures as necessary to balance the state's structural deficit.

Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) decried the "fear and paranoia" that have guided the creation and passage of the budget. Erpenbach, speaking about the damage caused by the expansion of the voucher program, cautioned that Wisconsin's public schools "will become institutions for kids who can't get into private schools."

Republican Senator Alberta Darling drew snarls from the gallery after describing her "different vision" for Wisconsin families. Citing the frugal, independent values of her constituents, Darling argued in favor of a government with fewer social safety nets, and promised that the best way to bring jobs to people was to lure "companies, bosses, and corporations" to Wisconsin.

A stink bomb was discovered later in the day in the hallway outside Senator Darling's office.

The debate's most egregious comment belonged to Republican Senator Glenn Grothman, whose decision to speak prompted one spectator to chant "Fascist! Fascist! Fascist!" Grothman referred to the earned income tax credit as "the equivalent of a welfare check," cautioning against turning Wisconsin into a "single mother" state.

Cuts to Schools and Health Care, Tax Breaks for Tobacco Companies

Some of the Walker wish list items in the budget with the most devastating consequences for local communities and working-class families include:

--An $834 million cut to K-12 schools over the next two years and a provision limiting how much schools can collect from property taxes per student. The combined cut is expected to reduce revenue to districts by nearly $1.6 billion, and may result in the firing of 5,000 teachers.

--The expansion of the taxpayer-funded voucher program for private and parochial schools to Racine County, and eventually other districts across Wisconsin. The plan, which does not include schools in poverty-stricken Green Bay, will likely reduce aid to public schools and increase property taxes.

-- Modifying the formula used to determine the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax benefit given to working families, to reduce the amount of money families with two and three children could claim.

-- Corporate tax breaks that, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, will cost Wisconsin $2.3 billion in reduced revenue over the next 10 years.

-- A $94 million cut to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, part of a larger $250 million cut to the entire UW system.

-- Capping enrollment in Family Care, Wisconsin's long-term care and community-based support program for elderly and disabled persons. The system will likely no longer be able to provide employment and community participation for people with disabilities, and threatens to hurt families' ability to find substantial care for their disabled loved ones. The plan will also force more senior citizens into retirement homes.

-- A $500 million cut to Medicaid, including the BadgerCare Plus program, which will hurt lower-income families' access to health care services.

-- The implementation of the bail bondsmen and bounty hunter system in Wisconsin.

--Tax breaks for Altria, created by changing the criteria for taxes on some smokeless tobacco products, such as moist snuff.

Republican legislation not included in the budget also reflects their persistent effort to saturate Wisconsin communities with a right-wing agenda. The state Senate recently passed concealed-carry legislation, allowing those with permits to discretely carry firearms. Wisconsin had previously been one of only two states without any form of concealed carry legislation.

Protesters at a 5:30 p.m. rally raised objections to many of the budget's more controversial provisions.

"I'm particularly appalled that they would cut over $ 1 billion in public education, and at the same time funnel hundreds of millions more into subsidizing private schools for rich kids, during a funding crisis for schools in inner cities," said Peter Rickman, a Walkerville organizer who was unable to name a "single redeeming thing" in the 2011-2013 state fiscal plan.

Dale Madison, a former construction worker now battling unemployment, helmed a 'Russ Feingold for Governor' merchandise table near Capitol Square. Asked if the former Senator would bring a more worker-friendly agenda to Wisconsin, Madison replied, "Well, right now we've got nothing for the people. They're killing us with these bills."

Senate proceedings were supposed to begin at 11:00 a.m. Thursday, but were pushed back to 1:00 p.m. after a pair of protesters chained themselves to the railing of the Senate gallery using U-shaped bike locks.

Shortly after Senate Chief Clerk Robert Marchant began roll call, several protesters stood up and began screaming "kill the bill." Six people were removed and later cited for disorderly conduct, while dozens of Capitol and University police appeared to monitor the two protesters -- Bridgett O'Brien, 23, and Christopher French, 20 -- before specialists from the University of Wisconsin Police Department arrived to dismantle the locks.

French screamed across the Senate chamber, "If anyone wants to get locked up, we support you," as police, obscured from the view of spectators by raised blankets, began their effort to remove the seasoned activist. No one was allowed to enter the gallery during the strange situation, and Capitol law enforcement later added bike locks, chains, and cables to a list of forbidden items.

According to a situation report from Capitol Police, French and O'Brien were arrested and taken to Dane County Jail, where they were booked and charged with state disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, and obstructing/resisting an officer.

O'Brien later said that she's been through similar situations before, claiming responsibility for getting lotion banned from the Capitol. She asked that people refrain from "demonizing the protests."

"There's a long history of people standing up and taking action in the face of unjust legislation," said O'Brien.