Management by proverbial drunken sailors

If it weren’t such an insult to drunken sailors… my column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Although some substantial progress has been made on reducing taxes in Wisconsin, the state stubbornly remains as one of the highest taxed states in the nation. The cause of exorbitant taxation is extravagant spending.

Wisconsin taxes so much because it spends so much.

While many Wisconsinites like to delude themselves into believing that Wisconsin’s government spends so much in order to maintain an acceptable standard of life, the truth is far less defensible. Wisconsin does spend more than other states as a matter of choice, but it also continues to waste billions of dollars because of flawed priorities, corruption and rank incompetence.

Two recent examples regarding two of the state budget’s largest spending items have bubbled to the surface.

Last week, the Legislative Audit Bureau released an audit of the Department of Transportation that paints a picture of a department rife with sloppy work and frivolous spending. One finding was that the DOT was utterly incompetent at providing cost estimates for projects. In one example, of the agency’s 16 ongoing projects, the DOT underestimated the cost by $3.1 billion. The audit cites the agency’s failure to account for inflation, meet performance goals or control expenses as reasons for the bloated costs.

The audit goes on to detail the DOT’s poor reporting practices that thwart adequate oversight, the repeated failure to get competitive bids on projects and careless management. The result is despite increased spending in the past few state budgets, the state’s roads are in increasingly worse condition.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit stemming from a State Department of Justice investigation alleges illegal financial dealings at the University of Wisconsin- Oshkosh. According to the lawsuit filing, former UW-O Chan-cellor Richard Wells and retired UW-O Vice Chancellor of Administrative Services Tom Sonnleitner worked together to make illegal financial guarantees and use taxpayer dollars for building projects being done by the UW-O Foundation.

The UW-O Foundation is a nonprofit group that raises private money to spend on things to support the university. As part of their investment initiatives, the foundation invested in several local building projects including a conference center, two biodigesters, a sports complex and a Best Western hotel. The foundation hopes to gain a profit from the investments since these are mostly private, for-profit, enterprises.

But the foundation did not have enough money for the investments, so the lawsuit alleges the former UWO Chancellor guaranteed the loans and provided taxpayer money to the tune of $11 million to get the projects done. That is illegal. As the fallout from the lawsuit unfolds, the UW-O Foundation is considering filing for bankruptcy, which would leave the taxpayers on the hook for even more millions.

Both the stories regarding the Department of Transportation and UW-O are revealing in that the behavior has gone on for years — even decades — without anyone blowing the whistle. And even now, the wasteful and possibly illegal behavior continues unabated. Just because the Legislative Audit Bureau released a scathing report and a lawsuit has been filed does not mean that anything has changed. Nobody has been held accountable. There is a pervasive cavalierness in much of government about spending our money.

These are just two small windows into the workings of our government that show billions of dollars’ worth of wasteful spending. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Department of Transportation and the University of Wisconsin System are also two of the loudest recipients of taxpayer dollars that are crying poor and demanding even more tax dollars from the next budget.

Wisconsin continues to have a tax problem as a direct result of its spending problem. And unless state leaders get control of the bureaucracy, enforce rigid accountability for mismanagement, and infuse a culture of frugal stewardship, Wisconsin will continue to have a spending problem for the foreseeable future.