My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. I’m not feeling very good about what I’m hearing coming out of Madison. I hope I’m worrying over nothing.
Uneasy budgeting feeling
Imperfect storm looms on 2015 legislative horizon
Do you hear those bells? Is it that season already? No; not the jingle bells harkening the Christmas season. It is getting cold before an odd-numbered year, which means it must be almost budget season in Wisconsin. Those are warning bells.
The voters made a very distinct choice in November to keep turning Wisconsin’s state government more conservative. The consequential 2011 legislative year was perhaps the most conservative year Wisconsin had ever had. The state cut taxes, enacted concealed carry and, of course, passed Act 10, which has saved Wisconsinites billions of dollars and continues to yield dividends.
The state Republicans continued to pass conservative legislation and enact more conservative policies throughout the recall election through 2012 and 2013, although at a slower pace. The voters approved and rewarded the Republicans with stronger and more conservative majorities in both houses of the Legislature. And they re-elected Gov. Scott Walker for the third time in four years.
Perhaps it is the pessimism of someone who has seen Republicans turn wobbly on the threshold of victory too many times, but the news has been troubling of late. First, Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb put forth a proposal to increase taxes and fees to the tune of $751 million and borrow hundreds of millions more in order to pump more money into the bloated transportation budget.
While Walker made some noises about making changes to Gottlieb’s plan, he noticeably declined to rule out any of the tax or spending increases. The Republican leadership in the Legislature was also disturbingly muted.
Soon after, all of the state’s agencies submitted their budget requests for the 2015-17 budget. This is part of the normal budgeting process whereby state agencies submit their budget requests. From there, the governor winnows the agency requests down to a budget plan that is sent to the Legislature. The Legislature can then do whatever it wants with the budget. But the agency requests are the first step in the budgeting process.
When all of the agencies’ requests are added up, the spending exceeds the expected tax revenue by more than $2 billion. If the agencies get their way, the Legislature would have to find a way to fill the gap with either more taxes or more borrowing. Once again, the responses from state Republican leaders have been ominously subdued. While Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald all made the appropriate statements about “priorities” and making “prudent decisions,” not one of them was forthright in rejecting spending and tax increases.
While Republican leaders have not been forceful about rejecting spending and tax increases, it is also worth pondering why the increases were submitted by the agencies in the first place. These are agencies being run by Walker appointees who know that their budget requests were being submitted to Walker and possibly the most conservative Legislature in the history of the state. Why would they submit a wish list of spending and tax increases if they did not think at least some of them had a chance of making it into the budget?
We must also be cognizant of the fact that this budget debate will take place in the shadow of Walker considering a run for president. Immediately after he was re-elected, Walker was quick to push the Legislature to pass a budget quickly — presumably to get it off his plate so he can turn his eyes to the east. It is not uncommon for Republican politicians contemplating a presidential run to actively avoid pursuing an agenda that might be labeled “controversial” by a conservative- hating media.
I hope to be proven wrong, but I have a very uneasy feeling going into this budget cycle despite what the voters chose last month.
(Owen Robinson’s column runs Tuesdays in the Daily News.)