Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday he believed Republicans were within days of reaching a budget deal, even as GOP lawmakers said they remained far apart and the leader of the state Senate said he didn’t have the votes for any budget agreement even within his own house.
“I think in the next few days we’re likely to see the framework of a budget deal come together,” the likely presidential candidate told reporters in Milwaukee aftersigning a pair of bills, including one ending the 48-hour waiting period for buying guns.
With a week left before they are supposed to have a deal done, lawmakers gave a very different assessment of where budget talks stand.
“It sounds like the governor is more optimistic than I am,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said in a written statement.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said in a talk with WTMJ-AM (620) host Charlie Sykes he didn’t have the votes for a budget within his caucus.
That complicates the negotiations because Fitzgerald remains far apart from Vos and other Assembly leaders on transportation.
In a sign of how fluid talks are, Fitzgerald said GOP lawmakers are considering putting a surcharge on tickets to help pay for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks arena — which would cost the public $250 million upfront and $400 million when accounting for interest over 20 years — is one of the major sticking points of the budget.
Another sharp line of disagreement has been over highways.
Walker recommended borrowing $1.3 billion over two years to pay for transportation, but GOP lawmakers have said that’s too much.
Assembly Republicans have said they want to reduce that figure by $800 million and cut projects around the state, including the massive Zoo Interchange reconstruction in Milwaukee County.
But Fitzgerald made his strongest statement yet that he wanted to spare the Zoo Interchange from cuts after being briefed on the issue by the Department of Transportation.
“Not only did it dawn on me, but it dawned on other members of my caucus, that this is nothing to toy with,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s got to be completed. It’s not something to mess with. And we’re all going to have egg on our face if the busiest interchange in the state of Wisconsin is suddenly hanging there undone for two years. It would be ridiculous.”
Some Republicans have called for raising vehicle registration fees to help pay for roads, but Walker has said he would veto increases in those fees or the gas tax. Assembly Republicans have said their only option is to significantly reduce borrowing for roads and delay projects.
Some believe dramatic spending reductions would lead to public support for finding more money to pay for highways. Fitzgerald said he thought road builders were backing that approach to try to “box in the governor” to show there is a need for more revenue for transportation.
The budget is supposed to be completed by the time the new fiscal year starts July 1, but lawmakers appear certain to miss that deadline. No immediate crisis happens in that case because funding for state programs will continue at current levels until a new budget is signed into law.
While Walker said he thought a budget deal could be reached quickly, he also sought to downplay the ill effects of having budget talks drag into July, saying only three state budgets since 1983 have been signed into law by June 30.
“The reality is there is an awful lot of hysteria going on in the Capitol, at least in the media and from some of our opponents, acting like this is something where we’re going to shut the government down like we do at the federal level,” he told reporters.
Walker for months has said he would not announce his presidential run until after he signed the budget. But last week he shifted on the issue and said he would make an announcement after the fiscal year ends June 30.
He is targeting July 13 to make his announcement and it is unclear if the budget will be done by then.
He declined to address the issue anew on Wednesday, saying he was optimistic “that a budget will be forthcoming in the next week or so.”
“Right now I’m not going to back away from that optimism,” he said.
Republicans control the Senate, 19-14. With all Democrats opposed to the budget, Fitzgerald can afford to lose only two votes.
The GOP has a more commanding majority in the Assembly of 63-36.
Another budget choke point is the prevailing wage law, which sets a minimum salary for workers when they build roads, schools or other publicly funded projects. Some Republicans want to modify that law and others want to repeal it, with some saying they won’t vote for the budget unless it at least partially repeals the law.
Daniel Bice of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.