MADISON — Republican lawmakers moved closer Thursday to enacting Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to give parents a tax credit and create a sales tax holiday, moving the package through the Assembly and on to the Senate. The legislation’s fate in that house is uncertain.
Walker’s plan calls for giving all parents a $100 per-child tax credit, funded through the state’s budget surplus. It also would repeal sales taxes on items costing less than $100 over the first weekend in August. The legislation would cost the state about $170 million in all.
Democrats blasted it as an election year gimmick — the sales tax holiday would fall just days before the August primary — but Assembly Republicans have embraced the plan. The chamber passed it 61-35 on Thursday.
“This money is taxpayers’ money, and it should go back to them,” Republican Rep. Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls said.
The sales tax holiday lacks support in the Senate, putting the entire plan in jeopardy. The Assembly was expected to wrap up its two-year session Thursday, and it’s unlikely the body would reconvene to concur with any changes the Senate might make to the bill.
Assembly Republicans amended the measure to allow retailers to opt out of the sales tax holiday. Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said during a news conference before voting began that the move is designed to give options to small stores that might struggle to adjust their cash registers during the holiday. But the opt-out also could generate support among senators. Regardless, Vos said the Senate could now take the bill or leave it.
Democrats accused Walker and the GOP of trying to bribe voters. They said $100 would make little difference to families and Republicans should spend the money on other needs such as road repairs and public schools.
“We’re witnessing a last-ditch effort to buy votes. A hundred dollars is too little, too late,” Democratic Rep. Melissa Sargent of Madison said.
Republicans pushed back hard, insisting that the surplus belongs to the taxpayers and $100 can make a huge difference for parents looking to buy school clothes for their children.
“You give me $100, I’m going to get down on the ground and thank you,” Republican Rep. Joe Sanfelippo of New Berlin said.
The Assembly also approved a tax incentive package designed to dissuade Kimberly-Clark from cutting 600 jobs in northeastern Wisconsin. The consumer products giant has been noncommittal to the proposal, which Walker put forward mirroring incentives given to Taiwanese company Foxconn Technology Group.
That proposal is opposed by a coalition of conservative advocacy groups that say it’s bad economics and sets a bad precedent for economic development. Democrats called it a stunt.
The Assembly passed a bill that would make it easier to revoke parole for anyone charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor, approve borrowing $350 million to pay for a new adult prison and spend nearly $4 million more to hire about 54 new prosecutors. Its fate in the Senate is also unknown.
Democratic critics spoke against the revocation changes, saying it would overwhelm the criminal justice system, cost too much and not reduce crime. The change is expected to send hundreds more people to prison every year and increase costs to the state by $57 million a year.
Vos said he wanted to approve borrowing for the new prison now while lawmakers await recommendations of a prison study task force. Given that prisons are already 30 percent over capacity, and the Legislature was passing tough-on-crime bills expected to put even more people behind bars, Vos said it was a foregone conclusion that a new prison would be needed.
People with life-threatening diseases in Wisconsin could get access to experimental drugs more quickly under a bill headed to Walker.
The Assembly passed the so-called right to try bill Thursday night. The proposal would allow certain patients to be prescribed drugs that have yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Supporters say too many patients can’t get into clinical trials and it takes the FDA too long to approve experimental drugs that could help seriously ill patients.
The Senate passed it earlier this week, so it will become law with Walker’s signature.
‘Straw’ gun purchases
A bill strengthening the penalties for legally buying a firearm with the intent to provide the weapon to someone barred from having a gun is headed to Walker.
The Assembly passed the bill targeting the practice known as “straw” purchases Thursday night. The Senate passed it earlier this week.
Under current law it’s a misdemeanor, punishable by up to nine months in jail, for someone to knowingly give a firearm to someone prohibited from possessing one. The bill makes it a felony, punishable by up to six years in prison.
The measure is supported by law enforcement agencies and Milwaukee officials who say it will help combat the problem in Wisconsin’s largest city.