Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began and ended his budget address Tuesday night with his vision of the American dream, one based on smaller government.
"Our focus is simple -- more prosperity, better performance and true independence," said Walker.
Walker has been promoting his 2013-15 budget for weeks, announcing various initiatives at press conferences throughout the state. The budget includes $68 billion in spending, a slight increase over the $64.1 billion in proposed spending in his 2011-13 budget.
Taxes feature prominently in Walker's current plan on how to fuel the economy. He's proposed an income tax cut totaling $343 million over the next two years, with the largest impact on households making between $28,000 and $214,000 a year. He also promised to maintain property tax levels.
"I want to cut taxes over and over and over again until we are leading the country in economic recovery," said Walker. "This budget does not -- I repeat, does not -- include a gas tax increase or a vehicle registration fee bump," a reference to recent recommendations from his bipartisan Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy.
Walker's proposal does include $6.4 billion for transportation infrastructure, $25 million for a venture capital fund, and ongoing funding to support tourism initiatives.
Walker's plan to expand the private school voucher program -- including to Madison -- is likely one of the more controversial provisions in his budget. He received a bipartisan standing ovation when he thanked the "amazing teachers from across the state," but generally only Republicans stood to applaud his education plans.
He's budgeted $475 million for schools and higher education and is calling for a system that would offer bonuses to high performing schools and withdraw support from failing programs until the schools create plans to address their problems.
"Our children can't afford to wait," said Walker, noting his voucher program would allow lower and middle class families access to private schools with good academic records.
Walker also explained why he was not accepting billions in federal funding to expand BadgerCare, an option through the Affordable Care Act.
"If they cannot fulfill their current obligations, what makes us think the Congress and Administration can cover even bigger costs in the future," asked Walker.
He proposed transitioning people off of government-run Medicaid and into "private or exchange markets, where they can get a premium for as low as $19 per month."
And for non-elderly and able-bodied adults on food stamps, Walker proposed a required job skills training.
"I'm all for providing a temporary hand up, but for those who are able-bodied, it should not be a permanent hand out," said Walker, "I care for the people of this state too much to force them to live a life of dependence on the government."
While Walker created a narrative about independence leading to prosperity, the Democrats focused on the challenges still facing the middle class. Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, shared remarks after the address, surrounded by several Democratic legislators.
"I think the Walker budget fails the middle class," said Mason.
Mason criticized Walker's "gimmicks" and "failed policies of the past," as well as his proposed voucher expansion. He also questioned whether Walker's income tax cut would truly serve the middle class.
"Where I come from, 200 grand [a year] ain't middle class," said Mason, of the proposed cuts that would extend to those with an annual income of $214,000.
Walker's budget will next be taken up by the Joint Finance Committee where it will be reviewed and likely revised. If on schedule, the full Legislature will vote on the budget in July.