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Adding, keeping jobs is basic to state budget says majority leader

Tom Nelson, State Assembly Majority Leader

What: Joint Finance Committee public hearing on the state's 2009-2011 budget bill

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 27

Where: Haas Fine Arts Center, UW-Eau Claire Campus, 121 Water St., Eau Claire

Wisconsin's budget crisis is so intertwined with the country's economic crisis that when the nation's problem is fixed the state's will be too, said Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson Friday.

"The No. 1 issue is jobs," said Nelson, D-Kaukauna. "How do we get people back to work?"

Nelson, who is on a statewide tour visiting news media, said the Democratic leadership aims to use the 2009-2011 budget and federal stimulus money to add and keep jobs.

"We know the budget deficit is largely cyclical," said Nelson. Therefore, he said, it's logical to use federal stimulus money to patch the shortfall in state revenue and to improve Wisconsin's human capital by investing in education and its physical capital by investing in roads, bridges and schools.

"The crown jewel of the state is our public school system," said Nelson. A good school system results in a good workforce, and it's important to invest in that in good times and in hard times, he said.

Neither massive cuts nor massive tax increases make sense at this point, said Nelson. The governor's budget includes 1% across-the-board cuts and elimination of specific activities, including some motor vehicle services centers, counter service at regional Department of Natural Resources offices and tourism assistance at state rest areas.

"This is a draft. We're not handing this into the teacher like this," said Nelson, explaining that while the 2009-2011 budget introduced by Gov. Jim Doyle is a good start, it's by no means a done deal.

Nelson promised there will be a determined effort by the Legislature to complete its budget by the June 30, a timeline that helps school districts and municipalities know where they stand when they prepare their own budgets.

The last time that deadline was met was over 30 years ago, when Patrick Lucey was governor, said Nelson.

Doyle introduced his budget Feb. 17. The Legislative Audit Bureau has reviewed it. Now state agency briefings will be held, followed by public hearings around the state.

The Joint Finance Committee will tailor the budget, adding or subtracting. Then the budget will be taken up by the Assembly, followed by the Senate. If the bills adopted by the two houses aren't identical, a conference committee will attempt to hammer out the details.

"I learned firsthand that the budget process is broken," said Nelson, who held a one-man sit-in October 2007, staying at his desk in the Assembly chamber for five days and six nights before a budget was passed.

Earlier this year the Committee for Assembly Organization passed a rule to prohibit Assembly members from accepting or soliciting campaign donations from the start of budget deliberations until the budget is finalized,

Nelson said this regulation is in an effort to raise public confidence in budget negotiations. Accusations were made two years ago that the budget was four months late because legislators were spending time raising money from special interest groups.

"Now we can focus on one thing and one thing only," said Nelson.

Another change, he said, is that some budget hearings will be held on weekends to allow greater participation by citizens who can't take time away from their jobs to participate.

These are among the proposals in the governor's budget bill:

--A 1% across-the-board reduction from state agency budget requests.

--Elimination of "low-activity" driver's license stations, including those in New Richmond, Ellsworth and Amery. This will save $852,000 and cut 11 positions, said Nelson.

--Using state revenue and federal stimulus money to increase funding for schools by $426 million over the next two years.

--Repeal of the qualified economic offer requirement on teacher compensation. Elimination of the QEO through the budget bill is appropriate, said Nelson, because it was first included in a budget as a temporary fix.

The QEO, which limits the total of benefit and salary increases for teachers to 3.8%, first came into law as a part of the 1993-95 budget bill. It was set to expire in June 1996 but became permanent with the adoption of the 1995-97 budget.

"In 1993 health care costs were nothing like they are today," said Nelson. "This is an issue of fairness. Teachers are the only public employees that are not able to use their collective bargaining rights like other (public employees)."

--Prohibit smoking in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants, throughout the state. Increase the tobacco tax.

"The smoking ban has been debated ad nauseam for years," said Nelson, defending its inclusion in the budget bill. "We just need to resolve the issue and move on."

--An increase in tax credits for angel and venture capital investments and new tax breaks for investing in Wisconsin start-up businesses.

--Use of federal economic stimulus money and taxes on oil company profits to increase transportation funding by over $600 million. Projects in this plan include over $5 million for work on Hwy. 64 from New Richmond to Connorsville.

--Maintain a 3% limit on increase in local government tax levies for two more years.