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Walker's budget holds property taxes, school funding flat

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Walker budget

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker delivers his state budget address Tuesday at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker proposed a state budget plan Tuesday that would slightly lower property taxes over the next two years and keep funding flat for public schools, greatly expand Wisconsin's private school voucher program and use a variety of cuts, both small and large, to plug a shortfall.

Walker, who's beginning his second term, delivered the spending plan to the GOP-controlled Legislature amid growing interest in his likely Republican presidential run. The $68 billion budget covering taxing and spending in Wisconsin over the next two years is the last one Walker will release before the 2016 campaign for the White House.

Walker said his budget would help deliver the "American dream" to people who have felt left out in recent years.

"Our plan is based on growth and opportunity, which leads to freedom and prosperity for all," he said. "Secondly, our plan will use common sense reforms to create a government that is limited in scope and, ultimately, more effective, more efficient, and more accountable to the public."

But his plan is already running into opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike, who cite concerns over a 13 percent cut to the University of Wisconsin System, no increase in money for public schools and a 30 percent increase in borrowing for roads and infrastructure spending.

Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, clad in a red Wisconsin badger T-shirt beneath her black blazer, said proposed cuts to the UW system and public schools would lead the state in the wrong direction.

"This budget we think is going to be balanced on the backs of our middle-class families and our children," Taylor said.

Walker's budget would cut $300 million from the UW System. Tuition would be frozen over the next two years, while UW would be given more freedom from state oversight and laws.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said the cut is too large and will do irreparable harm both the university and state economy.

Walker is also calling for removing a 1,000-student lid on the private-school voucher program. But going forward, the program would be available only to students transferring in from public schools, and money to pay for it would come from state aid sent to those public schools losing the student.

Walker also calls for assigning letter grades to all schools for the first time. He does not support imposing sanctions on failing schools, putting him at odds with Assembly Republicans who are pushing for that.

"It's not a good starting point," said state schools Superintendent Tony Evers. No increase in funding for schools amounts to a cut because they won't be able to keep up with growing expenses, he said. And taking money away from schools to pay for voucher students only compounds the problem, Evers said.

School spending would be held in check to fulfill Walker's re-election promise to lower property taxes. Bills on a median-valued $151,000 home could go down $5 in each of the next two years.

Walker, the 47-year-old son of a preacher, also calls for drug-testing for people seeking Medicaid, unemployment, food stamps and other public benefits. Similar proposals in other states have been successfully challenged in court as unconstitutional.

Walker also defended a requirement that able-bodied adults be enrolled in job training programs in order to receive food stamps, saying "these programs should be a temporary safety net — not a hammock."

Walker's budget holds sales and income taxes in check, and rejects calls from his own Department of Transportation to increase the gas tax and vehicle registration fees to pay for road projects. Instead, Walker is borrowing $1.3 billion to pay for roads and other infrastructure projects.

Borrowing money to pay for roads has also drawn bipartisan opposition.

Rep. John Nygren, Republican co-chair of the budget committee, said he wanted to find a funding solution for transportation now, not rely on bonds that have to be paid off over a number of years.

Democrats have criticized Walker and Republicans for using a previous surplus to pay for nearly $2 billion in tax cuts — targeting income, property and manufacturing taxes — over the past four years. Those tax cuts helped fuel the current budget gap.

With the budget introduced, the debate now shifts to the Legislature, where lawmakers will spend the next four months working over his proposal before voting on it likely sometime in June.

While that's happening, Walker will be hitting the campaign trail once again as he seriously considers a run for president.

Associated Press writer Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.


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