Wisconsin Budget Woes

“I see a gun constantly aimed at our feet, wondering when our next self-inflicted wound will occur…” Kirk Bangstad, small business owner and political activist.

Mr. Bangstad was talking about education funding in the state budget but his comments apply to the rest of the budget and the budget process itself. Too often the important, long term investments needed by the state and the people of Wisconsin are lost in the political wrangling and ideological power struggles.

Governor Evers and the Republican controlled legislature are busy maneuvering to achieve competing, mutually exclusive goals for state’s spending priorities. Governor Evers submitted a budget with a tax cut, increased public school funding and funding for many other important public needs and services. It included a number of public policy changes. Republicans responded by arbitrarily refusing to even consider 545 items from Evers’ budget proposal. They passed their own budget bill with the the primary feature being a $3.5 billion tax cut. Evers signed this budget bill but with 51 line item vetoes.

No one will be happy with this budget. The legislature may try to override Evers’ vetoes. The Supreme Court may declare some of his vetoes unconstitutional. The only certainty is this budget is full of missed opportunities and many “self-inflicted wounds.”

Wisconsin doesn’t have to suffer through this every two years. There are better ways to conduct the state’s business. There are solutions to budget problems. But these solutions require changes in our thinking and political behavior. Too often faulty thinking leads to bad policy and results in bad outcomes for people.

Both politicians and citizens need to get past our faulty thinking about government spending and budgets. It should be self-evident (that is it needs no proof or documentation) that:

  • Government and public goods and services are essential to our lives, communities, the economy and a civil society.
  • Public goods and services like roads, sewers, water systems, law enforcement, courts, schools, and business regulation must be adequately funded.
  • This funding must be stable and continuous through good and bad economic times. In fact government is more essential in hard times.
  • Therefore cutting taxes every budget cycle is self defeating and destructive to the common good.
  • We all will pay more in the long run for not adequately funding necessary public services. It is cheaper to do bridge maintenance each year than to defer needed work until the bridge collapses.
  • We have to get over the false notion that we don’t have the money to pay for the good pubic serves we all need.

There are a number of ways to ensure adequate public revenue without raising taxes or cutting important programs. For example we could:

  • Collect the estimated $1.6 billion every year in various taxes owed that are not collected.
  • Collect taxes from the 60% of corporations operating in Wisconsin who pay no income taxes.
  • End corporate welfare, unproductive subsidies (think Foxconn) and tax loopholes.
  • Stop contracting out government services. We pay more for less service when for- profit companies replace public employees in providing services.
  • Cut counter productive spending. Maintenance and preventive services save money in the long run. It is better to provide social services, education, or mental health interventions than to fill up prisons.
  • Control medical insurance costs. Government in Wisconsin spends billions of dollars for public health care programs and public employee health benefits.
  • Cut the wasteful spending that does not create investments in our future.

Republicans tend to regard public spending –especially on social services and education – as expenses to be cut rather than investments in people and the future. They value individual wealth over the public good. They don’t understand, or want to acknowledge, that many public services pay for themselves by reducing future remedial costs. Environmental protection, mental health services, education and job training are investments. Police, prisons and cleaning up after pollution are expenses that can be reduced with preventive programs.

Republicans refusing to support Medicaid expansion is a typical example of their shortsighted thinking. Since 2014, Republicans have refused to accept $2.1 billion in federal Medicaid funds. This money could have provided health care to many thousands of people. This would have helped the economy, reduced hospital “charity care” and helped reduce medical costs for everyone.

The Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a successful, cost effective way to reduce working poor poverty levels. Created in 1975, the credit targets low income working individuals and families. In the past Republicans supported EITC because it incentivised work and was not a “welfare” program. Wisconsin has a state EITC credit that compliments the federal program. Gov. Evers proposed increasing the credit amounts but Republicans deleted his proposal. This is another example of refusing to expand successful programs that benefit everyone and the economy.

More shortsighted thinking can be seen in the 545 items summarily cut from Ever’s original budget proposal. The number and variety of deleted items is truly astonishing. Here are just a few items rejected:

  • An Office of School Safety
  • An initiative to promote mental health in schools.
  • A cap on insulin co-pays.
  • A homeless veterans rental assistance program
  • A sales tax exemption for diapers and breastfeeding equipment
  • A sales tax exemption for renewable energy
  • Funding for runaway and homeless youth services
  • A temporary committee to investigate juvenile justice reform.
  • A new Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy
  • Automatic voter registration
  • A Voter Bill of Rights
  • Universal background checks for gun purchases

These items weren’t debate and rejected. The Joint Finance Committee literally passed one motion to remove all 545 items “from further budget consideration.” So much for democratic deliberation in the conduct of the people’s business!

Producing a prudent, sensible budget that meets the needs of the people is a basic task of good government. This requires political representatives who honestly conduct the public’s business rather than selfishly pursuing reelection or partisan and ideological advantage. Unfortunately the required, public spirited leadership is lacking in the legislature. One can only conclude that Wisconsin is in for more divisive budget battles and more “self inflicted wounds.”