Wisconsin Seeks Tobacco Money to Balance Budget

A bill designed to eliminate the state's $1.1 billion budget deficit was back before the state Assembly Monday, after lawmakers failed to bring it up for debate -- much less a vote -- over the holiday weekend.

Republicans who control the Assembly 55-43 met privately in their party caucus for about 14 hours from Friday into early Saturday, as leaders tried to gather enough support to pass the bill. At 3 a.m. Saturday, they finally put off further talks until Monday.

The Assembly reconvened Monday morning briefly before Republicans again met in caucus.

The bill -- which does not raise taxes or cut aids to local governments this year -- relies on proceeds from the sale of the state's tobacco settlement payments to balance the books. Republicans who oppose the plan say it does not cut enough spending.

The shortfall resulted from shrinking revenues caused by the economic recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

State fiscal analysts estimate that even with the budget repair plan in place, the state would have a $2.8 billion deficit for the next two-year budget period that begins July 1, 2003, because spending commitments for various programs would outpace expected revenue.

The state Senate approved the bill 17-16 Wednesday, with all Democrats except Sen. Gary George of Milwaukee voting for it and all Republicans voting against it.

The bill must be passed by both houses and signed by GOP Gov. Scott McCallum to become law.

The plan makes no immediate cuts to local government aid but reduces by $40 million, or 4 percent, in 2004 the more than $1 billion counties, cities, towns and villages use annually to pay for services like police and fire protection. An additional $45 million in the aid would go to pay cities, towns and villages that save money by consolidating services such as recycling and garbage collection.

The proposed cut is minor compared with the governor's proposal to phase out by 2004 the more than $1 billion a year in shared-revenue aid that goes to local governments.

The budget bill also calls for an overhaul of campaign election laws, the first in more than two decades.