MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative Republican, put forward a surprisingly liberal budget Wednesday that includes a huge boost in funding for schools, sizable tuition cuts for college students and increased tax breaks for the working poor.
The shift by the famously tightfisted governor designed to position him for a third term in 2018 also appeases his conservative base with more welfare reforms, elimination of the prevailing wage and nearly $600 million in tax cuts.
"This budget includes historic investments in our priorities," Walker told the Republican-controlled Legislature as he released the plan Wednesday. "We're putting more money into public education than ever before, making college even more affordable, caring for the truly needy, building a stronger infrastructure, rewarding work, and cutting taxes to the lowest point in decades."
Democrats, and even some Republicans who control the Legislature, called his $76 billion budget that increases spending 4.2 percent over two years unrealistic and designed to boost his approval rating before another run for office.
"It's a death-bed conversion because he's going to be up for re-election in two years," said Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter, of Milwaukee.
Republican legislative leaders were slow to jump on board with seemingly popular increases in education spending, sharing the fear with Democrats that Walker wasn't being realistic.
"We have to be cautious," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. "We have to be sure that we're not doing something we're going to have to revisit two years from now, or god forbid, sooner than that."
And Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee, said the level of spending Walker proposed was an issue for her.
"We need to dig in and see how much is responsible and what is sustainable," she said.
The budget would spend $649 million more on K-12 schools, but districts would have to show they are in compliance with a law requiring teachers to contribute a certain amount for health care and pension costs in order to get more money. He's calling for extending a University of Wisconsin tuition freeze for a fifth year, then cutting tuition by 5 percent for all resident undergraduate students.
His budget would also increase pay for state workers 2 percent each of the next two years, cut the two lowest income tax brackets to save a median income family of four about $70 a year and eliminate the state portion of the property tax.
The budget is Walker's first since his short-lived run for president and the final one before he would appear on the ballot for a third term in 2018. Walker is raising money and taking other steps to run again, but said he won't officially announce until after the budget is done.
The budget comes after Walker previously cut funding for K-12 schools and UW, and froze tuition the past four years, while also giving them new ways to control costs. Walker credited an improved economy as allowing him to propose spending more money on education and other areas he had previously targeted for cuts.
"Of course we're pleased that there is some reinvestment, rededication to our schools, our families, our roads," said state Sen. Janet Bewley, of Ashland. "We are trying to make up for lost time and it's going to be very, very difficult to catch up."
Some Republicans have joined with Democrats in urging Walker to consider raising taxes and fees to pay for ongoing highway projects and plug a nearly $1 billion transportation budget gap. Walker relied on $500 million in borrowing and other budget moves to keep ongoing major road projects on track, while possibly leading to delays of other pending work.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the leading advocates for considering transportation-related revenue increases, said he'd be willing to delay passage of the budget from late June into October if that's what it takes to find a long-term transportation solution.
"I think it's definitely possible that we are going to look at a gas tax," Vos said. "We are going to look at registration increases. We're going to look at tolling. It is not responsible for us to just continue to kick the can down the road and put more and more spending on the state's credit card."
Transportation, school funding and welfare reform will be the biggest areas where the Legislature works with Walker to find compromises, Fitzgerald said. At the same time, he said Republicans who have their largest majorities in the state Legislature in decades will be itching to make their own, unspecified "sweeping changes and more reforms."
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Cara Lombardo contributed to this report.
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