Public input on the next state budget

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. I don’t have any illusions about Evers actually listening to my view, but he asked for public input…

Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes have announced they will hold four public listening sessions before Christmas to get the public’s input on the upcoming state budget. The four sessions will be today in Green Bay, Wednesday in Wausau, Dec. 18 in La Crosse and Dec. 19 in Milwaukee.

Since all four sessions begin during working hours and, like most tax-paying Wisconsinites, I work for a living, I will not be able to attend and give the incoming administration my thoughts in person. This column will have to suffice.

As the Legislature and governor begin the process of crafting the next state budget, they must do so with the understanding that Wisconsin is not immune from the economic winds blowing across the nation. While the underlying economic metrics remain strong, several leading indicators, including the wild movements in the stock market, foretell a looming recession within the next year or two.

Since Wisconsin uses a biennial budget, it is likely the next recession will come during the budget our elected officials are about to write. They must write that budget understanding recessions always lead to a decrease in state tax revenue while making higher demands on state services like welfare and Badger-Care. To that end, the overriding objective of the next state budget should be to reduce spending, reduce taxes and continue to pump money into the state’s rainy day fund, because rainy days are in the forecast.

From a revenue standpoint, the state of Wisconsin is in great shape. Thanks to the series of tax cuts that Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislators have delivered over the past few years, tax revenue is flowing into state coffers at historic levels. There is no shortage of money for politicians to spend.

While the Republicans have done a tremendous job in the previous few budgets, they have failed to reduce spending. Despite claims to the contrary, every single state budget for the last generation or more has spent more than the previous budget. Granted, the Republicans did not increase spending as much as the Democrats wanted to, but they increased spending nonetheless.

The vast majority of state spending is spent on a handful of budget priorities. One cannot seriously reduce spending without looking to the big budget items. The first area Evers and the Legislature should look is at education spending.

In the previous state budget, the state massively increased state spending on K-12 education. The data continues to show that once fundamental needs are met, spending more money on schools does not improve educational outcomes for the kids. Smarter spending does. The state should reduce overall spending on K-12 education while helping local districts develop more focused curricula through the Department of Public Instruction. The goal should be to use data-driven initiatives to improve actual outcomes. The goal should not be to see who can spend the most money.

Furthermore, the most recent state testing data shows that Wisconsin choice schools are outperforming government schools, and they do so for a lesser cost. The next state budget should further expand school choice to push money and kids to schools that provide better outcomes for those kids.

The other large state education expense is the UW System. Here again, the state should reduce state spending to force the needed reforms that UW officials refuse to take. Enrollment is in steep decline across the UW System except for their flagship university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yet the campuses are still overbuilt and there are too many of them for too few students. The state budget should reduce UW spending, continue the tuition freeze, and encourage the UW regents to consolidate and streamline the system’s structure.

The next state budget should also move the Wisconsin Retirement System from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Even though the WRS system is one of the few solvent state pension funds, a few years of bad decisions could change that and force the state into a miserable state like Illinois. Wisconsin should get ahead of the curve and give government employees a retirement plan more in line with what the vast majority of taxpayers have. Not only would this have the benefit of erecting a backstop against budgetary ruin, but it would encourage a healthy turnover of government employees who are not wedded to their pension.

The next state budget should also cut transportation spending and enact reforms to get more “road for our buck.” Some of the reforms in the bills passed by the Legislature last week take positive steps in this direction. Other Midwestern states manage to spend far less than Wisconsin per mile of road and have higher quality ratings. Now that the megaprojects in southeast Wisconsin are nearing completion, Wisconsin needs to rein in spending.

I could go on for another dozen columns. The state budget has no shortage of unnecessary or wasteful spending. If Evers and the Legislature do not reduce spending before the tax revenues fall during the next recession, the citizens of Wisconsin will be left footing the bill for their neglect when they can least afford it.