Scott Walker Ensnared by Wisconsin Budget, Sports Arena Fight as White House Run Beckons

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Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks to reporters outside Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart's annual Blue Jean Bash on May 16, 2015 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Division among Wisconsin Republicans over how to pay for roads and a sports arena threatens to muddy Governor Scott Walker’s message that he’s a get-it-done manager and complicate his presidential campaign announcement.

The governor has repeatedly pledged not to reveal his plans until after he signs a two-year budget. He’d anticipated that happening in late June, but fellow party members who control his legislature aren’t cooperating.

“The chances of a budget by July 1 are getting pretty slim,” said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan group that since 1932 has studied government finance.

The timing matters most to Walker. Without a budget, the state would function, but the governor could be mired in Madison as competitors travel the country raising money and name recognition. He would have to decide whether to break the promise he’s made to take care of state business before addressing the nation’s.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported that Walker is considering July 13 for a formal announcement. On that date, he would be among the last to enter the race.

“Governor Walker continues to meet and talk regularly with legislative leaders,” Laurel Patrick, his spokeswoman, said Tuesday in a statement. “We have been and will continue working with them on a budget that best serves the citizens of Wisconsin.”

Internecine Conflict

When Walker delivered his spending plan in February, he used the $70 billion proposal to highlight policies popular with his party’s base, including reduced funding for a university known for Democratic leanings, drug screening of welfare recipients and enlarging a private-school voucher program. The budget was roughly the same size as the one he signed June 30, 2013.

But in a move that upset some supporters, Walker proposed using taxpayer money to pay for half of a new $500 million arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, a professional basketball team that’s threatened to leave the state otherwise. He says the subsidy is more economical than losing tax revenue.

His support for public money has drawn criticism from conservative groups including Americans for Prosperity, which played a key role in his election.

“Government shouldn’t be in the business of financing a private sports stadium,” David Fladeboe, AFP’s Wisconsin director, said in a June 4 statement. “The current deal is based on fuzzy math, complicated accounting and millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Walker has sought to keep the arena in the budget bill. Patrick declined to say whether he’d allow a separate vote, as some Republicans have suggested .

“Governor Walker will continue working with legislators to protect taxpayers from the financial impact of losing the Bucks,” she said.

Funding for roads is equally fraught, with divisions between suburban and rural interests within the Republican caucus. Walker has opposed any increase in gas taxes or vehicle registration fees. Instead, he’s proposed issuing $1.3 billion in debt.

The Assembly’s speaker, Republican Robin Vos, is among those who have been critical of Walker’s proposed borrowing.

“At some point, your credit card is maxed out and you can’t do anymore,” he told WISN-TV in Milwaukee. “So, when Governor Walker proposed $1.3 billion in borrowing, I just think that is irresponsible.”

The debt in Walker’s proposed budget is less than half that of his predecessor’s last spending plan and at the lowest level in a decade, according to Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Wisconsin has about $10 billion in tax-supported debt, 15th among states and the 13th-highest per capita, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Governor’s Dilemma

There are no immediate dire effects if the state misses the June 30 end of the fiscal year, something that has happened in other budget cycles. Spending would continue at current levels.

Democrats are in no hurry to help.

“There are some significant issues that still remain and it could very easily spill over to mid-July or later,” said Representative Peter Barca, the minority leader of the Assembly.

Senator Duey Stroebel, a Republican, said Walker would be free of the debate’s complexities soon.

“We’re getting closer every day,” he said. “I would be shocked if this wasn’t done by July 13.”

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