Tag Archives: Column

Veto reform is badly needed

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday:

When the Wisconsin Legislature passed the state budget, it already had an irresponsible $500 million spending increase for K-12 education. With a stroke of his pen, Governor Evers used his powerful veto to increase spending by another $87 million. Now some lawmakers are proposing reining in the Wisconsin governor’s ability to use a veto to increase spending.

Governor Evers and his comrades have decried the attempt to curb the governor’s veto power as a partisan endeavor. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it would have been a worthwhile reform when one part controlled the legislative and executive branches. Even so, it often takes the abuse of power to spark reform, and this reform is badly needed.

Wisconsin’s governor has the most powerful veto pen in the nation. Forty-four states give their governor some form of line item veto authority, but they all have restrictions. Wisconsin’s governor has the fewest restrictions. He or she can veto numbers, strike out individual words, edit the meaning of sentences, and even arbitrarily reduce appropriated amounts. Up until 2008, when the voters last reformed the veto power, the governor could even strike out individual letters to create new words.

This vast veto authority gives Wisconsin’s governor an extraordinary amount of power to essentially write legislation by carving up what the Legislature sends to his or her desk. While it is true that the Legislature can override a veto by a twothirds majority, it rarely happens due to the high electoral bar.

There is an argument that governors should not have a line item veto at all. The governors of six states and the president of the United States do not have a line item veto authority. When a bill reaches their desks, they must veto the bill in its entirety or allow it to become law.

Our federal Constitution, which also served as a model for many state constitutions, was predicated on the notion that concentrated power is injurious to liberty. That is why our three branches of government are integrated with a complex system of checks and balances that are meant to assure that no one branch, and certainly no one person, can wield too much power.

While in theory, a line item veto can be overridden as easily as a full veto, the real world disproves that theory. Legislation – particularly a budget – is always the amalgamation of a thousand different compromises. Any final piece of legislation has been put through the grinder of legislative committees, public hearings, and two houses of the legislature. By the time it reaches the governor’s desk, a piece of legislation is a network of interdependent priorities and conditions. When a governor vetoes a part of the legislation, it short circuits the network and undermines the legislature’s intent. Since a partial veto only strikes out a piece of the compromise, there are rarely enough votes behind an individual item in a bill to override the governor’s veto.

The constitutional amendment being circulated by Sen. David Craig and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch does not even approach eliminating the governor’s line item veto. Their amendment would simply prohibit the ability of the governor to use a veto to increase spending. The rationale is simple. No single person in government should have the power to spend $87 million on their own authority.

That is entirely too much power for one person to have over his fellow citizens. Our state constitution explicitly grants the power to appropriate money for precisely the reason that spending decisions should be subject to a rigorous legislative process and not be the subject to the arbitrary whims of a solitary governor.

The process to amend the state’s constitution is, rightly, a lengthy one. The amendment must pass both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions. Then the amendment must pass a statewide referendum. Fortunately, the governor is not involved in the amendment process.

Wisconsin’s governor’s veto authority makes him or her too powerful. It was true for Governor Walker. It is true for Governor Evers. It will be true for the next governor. It will be true for the one after that unless we change it. Taking a small step to limit that veto authority is not a partisan issue. It is just a simple reform to make a better government.

Veto reform is badly needed

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a taste:

When the Wisconsin Legislature passed the state budget, it already had an irresponsible $500 million spending increase for K-12 education. With a stroke of his pen, Governor Evers used his powerful veto to increase spending by another $87 million. Now some lawmakers are proposing reining in the Wisconsin governor’s ability to use a veto to increase spending.

Governor Evers and his comrades have decried the attempt to curb the governor’s veto power as a partisan endeavor. Perhaps it is. And perhaps it would have been a worthwhile reform when one part controlled the legislative and executive branches. Even so, it often takes the abuse of power to spark reform, and this reform is badly needed.

[…]

The constitutional amendment being circulated by Sen. David Craig and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch does not even approach eliminating the governor’s line item veto. Their amendment would simply prohibit the ability of the governor to use a veto to increase spending. The rationale is simple. No single person in government should have the power to spend $87 million on their own authority.

That is entirely too much power for one person to have over his fellow citizens. Our state constitution explicitly grants the power to appropriate money for precisely the reason that spending decisions should be subject to a rigorous legislative process and not be the subject to the arbitrary whims of a solitary governor.

The process to amend the state’s constitution is, rightly, a lengthy one. The amendment must pass both houses of the legislature in two consecutive sessions. Then the amendment must pass a statewide referendum. Fortunately, the governor is not involved in the amendment process.

Wisconsin’s governor’s veto authority makes him or her too powerful. It was true for Governor Walker. It is true for Governor Evers. It will be true for the next governor. It will be true for the one after that unless we change it. Taking a small step to limit that veto authority is not a partisan issue. It is just a simple reform to make a better government.

 

Leaving an inheritance

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here you go:

Shortly after celebrating the birth of our great nation, my family and I celebrated the birth of my first grandchild. Such events cause one to pause and ponder life, posterity, and our state from a new perspective. God willing, my grandson will still be enjoying our wonderful state long after I have crossed into my immortality. What kind of state do I hope to leave him?

First and foremost, I want my grandson to grow up in a state where every child is allowed to be born. It is horrifying that some people would have accepted, even encouraged, my grandson to be killed right up to the moment he was born — and even for a few hours after — if his mother did not want him. I hope that Wisconsin will be a state that values every life and gives each baby the chance to live, grow, love, and be loved.

While they say that ignorance is bliss, it will not get you very far in life. Education is critical for one to be a contributing member of society and an active participant in our republic. Being educated also allows one to more fully enjoy life and the surrounding world with better understanding and knowledge. Education is a lifelong endeavor that begins in the home, but we also rightly expect our public and private schools to contribute to our education.

Most of Wisconsin’s public schools, and many of the private ones, are mediocre at best. In the case of public schools, we have too often used them as dumping grounds to solve societal ills instead of centers of education. We expect far too much of our teachers in terms of social work and not enough in terms of providing an exceptional education. I hope that Wisconsin can become a state where kids get the education that they deserve.

Wisconsin’s agricultural and manufacturing sectors have been the backbone of the state’s economy for generations and hopefully the state can continue to lead those sectors for many years to come. But Wisconsin needs a more diverse and dynamic economy if it is to stem the outflow of young workers. The technology sector is blossoming around Madison and the addition of Foxconn to the mix will help boost that sector in other regions, but the state needs to attract new businesses and industries. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to attract and encourage entrepreneurs to create and grow in the state. I hope that my grandchild will be able to enter a vibrant and diverse workforce when the time comes.

One of Wisconsin’s greatest assets is its stunning natural beauty. So many of us use and enjoy the many forests, lakes, streams, moraines, trails, and wildlife that Wisconsin has to offer. I hope that we will sensibly protect these natural assets while also ensuring that people are free to use them responsibly.

Nothing can rob a community or state of its potential more than crime. The vast majority of serious crimes are committed by a relatively small number of people, but those few people can sap the life out of a community. Crime not only directly impacts the victims, but carries over into the community by robbing the citizens of security and comfort. Crime scares away investment and pushes businesses, and the honest work they provide, beyond the reach of entire neighborhoods. I hope that Wisconsin takes the scourge of crime seriously by harshly punishing the offenders for the sake of the innocent.

High taxes have been a heavy yoke on the people of Wisconsin for so long that some Wisconsinites think such a burden is normal and acceptable. The burden is such that many young people choose to leave the state for the chance to take home more of their pay and many old people choose to leave because they can no longer afford to live here. High taxes drain money out of the private economy leaving less for people to invest in a business, save for retirement, buy a home, or educate their kids. I hope that Wisconsin will one day lighten the tax burden so that my grandson can afford to live and raise his own family in the state.

That is not to say that lower taxes should be replaced with more debt. Wisconsin must strive to lower government spending to enable lower taxes and less debt. There is no one quite as selfish as a politician who is willing to implement a debt tax on our grandchildren so that he or she can spend the money today.

Finally, I hope that Wisconsin continues on a path of expanding liberty wherever and whenever possible. I hope that the state reduces regulations, lowers taxes, protects the freedom of thought and word, protects the right to keep and bear arms, and ensures that whenever a balance must be struck between individual liberty and government power, that individual liberty wins the day.

I chose to live and raise a family in Wisconsin. I hope to do my small part to make it a better place where my grandson will choose to do the same.

Governor Evers endorses new era of moral depravity

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here you go:

On Friday afternoon, as people all over Wisconsin were getting ready to enjoy the first official weekend of summer, Gov. Tony Evers vetoed four bills relating to abortion. While it is easy to discuss the vetoes in the context of the political gamesmanship between the Republicans and the Democrats, to do so is facile and fails to fully appreciate the depravity behind the action.

The political angle is simple. In response to radical pro-abortion laws being passed by Democrats in states like New York, Republicans across the country are trying to pass laws to protect the unborn. Both parties are acting to solidify state laws should the United States Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and cast the responsibility for regulating abortions back to the states.

But behind these bills are the lives of real people. Let us take the four bills that Evers signed one by one.

The first bill would have prevented taxpayers from funding abortion providers through Medicaid. The two political parties have been fighting over this for years. The Republicans argue, rightly, that people who are morally opposed to killing babies in the womb should not be forced to fund organizations that do so. Democrats know that Planned Parenthood is a major financial and rhetorical supporter of the Democratic Party, so they must keep the taxpayer gravy train flowing. Evers vetoed the bill.

The second bill would have required that abortionists provide information that a woman may be able to change her mind and continue her pregnancy even after the first dose of mifepristone, a drug used as part of a drug cocktail to cause an abortion. The information would have been provided as part of the documentation that is already provided by abortionists. Evers vetoed the bill.

These two bills are somewhat procedural and wonkish, but the last two are morally crystal clear.

The third bill would have prohibited a woman from killing her baby based on its race, sex, or disabilities. Evers vetoed the bill. In doing so, Evers affirmed that women should have the ability to abort her baby if she does not like the color of its skin, the baby’s sex, or if the baby is disabled in some fashion. If a mom really wanted a boy but the ultrasound shows a girl, Evers supports her choice to kill the girl and try again. If a baby is shown to have a malformed foot, Evers supports the mom’s choice to kill the baby. If a mom does not want a black baby, Evers supports her choice. In short, Evers supports a woman’s choice to kill her baby even for the most capricious and vain reasons.

The fourth bill passed by the Legislature and vetoed by Governor Evers would have ensured that a baby who survives an abortion receives the same medical care and treatment that any newborn baby would. Sadly, abortionists are very effective, so the odds of a baby surviving an abortion is very rare. But when it does happen, the baby is, by any definition used since the dawn of humankind, born. The baby is outside the womb as a separate human. As such, the baby is entitled to all of the same protection and care as any other person. The fact that the baby survived an attempted abortion is immaterial in terms of the baby’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Not according to Governor Evers. According to our governor, a baby who is born and survived an abortion can still be quietly murdered because the abortionist and mother intended to kill it earlier. In Evers’ moral universe, the mother’s desire to kill her baby, even after it has left her body, trumps the baby’s right to exist.

We have come a long way from the old Bill Clinton mantra that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Now the rabid pro-abortionists like Governors Evers support abortions for any reason — even for anti-disabled, racist, or sexist reasons — up until the time of birth, and even for a while after birth. The moral decrepitude inherent in such a political position is astounding.

A failure of GOP leadership in Legislature

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online and in print. I’m not a fan of the budget that the JFC passed. Yes, they resisted the ultra-liberal policy ideas of Evers, but this budget could have been passed by any Democratic legislature in the past 40 years and you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference.

Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee has finished the state budget and sent it to each house of the Legislature for approval. House Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have said that they expect their respective houses to pass the budget and send it to the governor within the next few weeks. Conservatives in both houses will have to delay that timetable because this budget still needs a lot of work.

Simply put, the budget passed by the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee spends too much, borrows too much, raises too many taxes and fees, and fails to deliver on the promises made by Republican politicians in the last election.

When Gov. Tony Evers was elected, Wisconsinites knew that they were getting a governor who is much more liberal than Gov. Scott Walker. What they did not fully appreciate, perhaps, is just how liberal and rigid Governor Evers would be. During the first few months of Evers’ term, the Republicans reached out several times to find common ground and compromise on some of Evers’ stated initiatives. Each and every time, Evers rebuffed them and insulted their efforts to anyone who would listen. Evers even went so far as to call Republican leaders sexist for having the temerity to want to actually speak with the governor instead of his underlings.

While isolating himself in his Fortress of Hebetude, Governor Evers underscored his unwillingness to compromise by unleashing a budget proposal so riddled with liberal largesse that the Republicans in the Legislature had to toss it in the dustbin and start from scratch. Yet, despite everything, the budget passed by the Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee is far closer to Evers’ budget than they would like to admit. They cast aside most of Evers’ liberal policies, but left in place the bulk of the spending and taxing.

Overall, the budget passed by the JFC increases state government spending by about $4 billion, or 5.2%. That compares to a spending increase of $6.4 billion, or 8.3%, proposed by Governor Evers. That compares to an average inflation-adjusted personal income growth rate of 1.5% since the Great Recession according to the Pew Charitable Trust. Once again, state government spending outstrips Wisconsinites’ ability to pay.

Where is all of that spending going? The JFC budget includes spending an additional $500 million on K-12 schools. This is on top of the $639 million in additional spending that the Republicans included in the previous budget. The JFC budget spends more than $12 billion on K-12 education — by far the largest total in state history. But despite the massive spending increases, Wisconsin’s government schools continue

to deliver mediocre results. Spending more money on mediocrity will only encourage more mediocrity.

The JFC budget spends an additional $58 million on the UW System. This is the same system that lavishly wastes money on useless infrastructure and bloated staff while enrollment continues to decline. On top of the $58 million for operations, the UW System would receive another $1 billion to dump into more buildings. Much like so many local school districts, UW officials continue to prioritize swank buildings over delivering a better education.

When it comes to transportation, the JFC budget would spend an additional $484 million. Despite a recent report that detailed the waste and poor management that is endemic in the Department of Transportation, Republicans decided to throw more money into the pockets of the road builders without demanding a single iota of additional accountability or reform. Once again, the spending comes with a promise of some future reform that nobody really believes will happen.

I could go on, but you get the point. At the last minute, the Republicans threw in a moderate income tax cut of $321.5 million that would lower the second-lowest income tax bracket. While tax cuts are always welcome, this one is a calculated distraction. Evers will almost certainly use his powerful line-item veto power to veto the tax cut while leaving all of the spending in place. Republicans will then loudly wail about the veto of tax cuts in the press while celebrating the spending increases in private. It is the kind of cynical political gamesmanship that make people hate politicians.

The Republican leaders and the Joint Finance Committee had the opportunity to pass a fiscally conservative budget that drew a sharp contrast with Evers’ liberal budget. Instead, they gave the people a budget that could have been passed by any Democratic Wisconsin Legislature in the past 40 years. Now it is up to the rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives in the legislature to buck their leadership’s tax and spend proclivities and give the people who elected them a budget they can afford.

It’s the Spending, Stupid

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here you go:

Wisconsin has long been a tax hell where it is more expensive to live, work, and play than in most other states. Gov. Scott Walker and the legislative Republicans made some progress over the last eight years in making the state more affordable, but now many of those same legislative Republicans are allowing the state to slide back.

One of the myths perpetuated by Wisconsin’s liberals is that Governor Walker and the Republicans cut spending and starved government when Walker was in office. We have all heard the claims of cutting “to the bone” and draconian austerity measures. All of those claims are wrong. The truth is that every state budget that Walker signed spent more than the previous one.

What Walker and his Republican partners in the Legislature did was keep the spending increases smaller than normal while cutting taxes, deregulating, and aggressively working to improve the business climate. The result was a sustained period of improving in the national tax burden rankings (primarily because other states were jacking up taxes while Wisconsin held steady), higher employment, private-sector growth, and increasing tax revenues that resulted in budget surpluses.

It is a formula that works for a while, but it does not fix the root cause of the issue. Wisconsin is a tax hell because the government spends too much. Politicians can feed the spending beast without tax increases for a while by borrowing, juicing the economy with tax cuts and deregulation, and financial gimmickry, but eventually the bill must be paid. State government does not have the ability to print money like the federal government.

Now that Governor Walker has been replaced by a doctrinaire, tax-and-spend Gov. Tony Evers, the legislative Republicans who worked so well with Walker are regressing.

The state budget is being crafted by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. Once the JFC is finished with the budget, it will be sent for votes and possible amendments in the Assembly and the Senate. Since the Republicans still command sizable majorities in both houses of the Legislature, the Republicans are in complete control of what goes into, and what gets left out of, the budget.

Over the past few weeks, the Republicans on the JFC have been on a spending spree. They decided to spend an additional $500 million on K-12 education despite no correlation between spending and educational

outcomes. The Republicans increased spending on UW by $58 million even though the UW System has refused to consolidate and economize in the face of declining enrollment.

Last week, the JFC cranked up spending on transportation to the tune of $484 million. Perhaps remembering the 2017 audit completed by the Legislative Audit Bureau that found billions of dollars of waste and overruns in the Department of Transportation, Republican leaders have promised a series of reform bills are in the works, but it is worth noting that they are willing to spend the money before any reforms are even introduced — much less in place.

On those three items alone, Republican leaders in the Legislature are already committing increasing spending by over a billion dollars — and there are dozens of state departments to go.

Republicans are also already acknowledging that the days of increasing spending without tax increases are over. Their desire to spend more is outstripping their ability to keep taxes in check. In order to support the spending increases for transportation, the Republicans voted to increase vehicle title fees by $95 and annual registration fees by $10. They expect these to extract an additional $393 million from hardworking Wisconsinites to support their gross spending habit.

Even during the Walker era, Wisconsin’s Republicans have never been able to shake their spending addiction. They spend a little less than Democrats, but never actually cut spending. And if we never cut spending, we can never sustain cutting taxes. Now that Governor Evers has moved the spending goal even higher, the Republicans in the Legislature seem to be reveling in exploding spending without any pressure from the governor’s office to restrain themselves.

The Republicans lost every statewide election in Wisconsin last year largely because they gave up on the conservative revolution and failed to give the Republican grass roots anything to be excited about. Their behavior in this budget is evidence that they have not learned the lesson.

Is it summer yet?

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Nothing serious this week… just a whimsical celebration of the birth of summer.

I do not want to jinx it, but I think it might be finally here. All of the signs are there. Kids are graduating. Grass is being cut. Crossing guards are enjoying sleeping in. Air conditioners are kicking on. Fragile winter skin is burning. After a long, cold winter and a nonexistent spring, the first warm days of summer appear to be upon us.

Summer is a glorious time in Wisconsin. I spent my youth in the desert sands of a foreign country and then the broiling summers of Texas. These are places where the seasons are defined by hot and slightly-less- hot. When I moved to Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago, the joy of summer was lost on me. Then I spent the winter here. I get it now.

I have a confession to make. Despite living almost within sight the old Washington County Courthouse — one of the most beautiful county courthouses in the state — I have never toured the inside of it. It is a shameful admission given my penchant for wandering into any old museum, historic building, battlefield, or historical marker when I travel. Like many, I am guilty of failing to appreciate what is in my backyard. I blame my negligence on the fact that there is so much to enjoy in Wisconsin during the warm summer months.

As I write this column, I am sitting on the SS Badger awaiting a trip across Lake Michigan. Like many of Wisconsin’s gems, a trip on the Badger is something that generations of Wisconsinites have enjoyed. The history of the vessel is like that of Wisconsin. Once an industrial ferry, now it carries everything from foreign tourists to Harleys to young families looking for a nice getaway.

Of course, one cannot pass through Manitowoc without spending little time on the USS Cobia and the Maritime Museum to explore Wisconsin’s rich seafaring legacy. Sitting betwixt two gigantic Great Lakes, Wisconsin has been building and sailing for generations.

One of the great things about Wisconsin’s summers are the public festivals available every weekend. While the big ones in Milwaukee like Summerfest get most of the attention (rightfully so), almost every Wisconsin community of any size has a festivals throughout the summer. It is a fantastic way for communities to celebrate their cultural heritage or just get together and have some fun.

Wisconsin has a lot of big events during the summer that draw people from all over the world. EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh is one of the largest and most unique. Little Oshkosh becomes the aviation center of the world for a week in July. Drawing well over a half-million attendees, AirVenture is a place for novices and aviation enthusiasts to see and learn about every form of aviation known to humankind.

Most of my favorite things to do in Wisconsin during the summer involve getting outside and enjoying our state’s natural beauty. Wisconsin is full of marvelous trails, parks, lakes, and other ways to enjoy nature. Many of the rails to trails, like the Eisenbahn or the Ozaukee Interurban trails, offer a smooth path for running, biking, or just walking. Trails like the many segments of the Ice Age Trail offer something bit more rugged. State and County parks are always a great way to find a campground, beach, path, swimming hole, wildlife, and fantastic views.

Summers in Wisconsin are short. That is part of what makes them so delightful. A Wisconsin summer always leaves you wanting more. Let us all get out from behind our screens, push back from our desks, jump off the couches, and get out to enjoy all that our wonderful state has to offer.

Public information should be made public

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

One of the great things about federalism is that each state can experiment with various policy choices allowing the best and most successful ideas to be copied by other states. The state of Michigan has an excellent government transparency policy that Wisconsin should adopt forthwith.

Having just finished a lengthy public debate regarding a school referendum in the West Bend School District, one of the infuriating aspects of the debate was the incomplete, misconstrued, or missing information. The district’s officials distributed a lot of information, carefully curated and parsed, specific to the referendum, but finding general information about the district remains difficult.

Since the School Board and district were asking for gobs of additional money to spend, many voters began asking reasonable questions about the district’s finances. After all, how can a voter reasonably vote to give a government more money to spend unless they are confident that the government officials are being a good stewards of the money they already have?

For example, how much does the district spend on employee benefits? How much do they spend on maintenance for facilities? How much is spent on outof- state travel? What is actually in the teachers’ contract negotiated with the union? What is the compensation plan for teachers, staff, and administrators? How much debt is the district carrying and how are they paying it off ?

The answers to these questions and many more are available for the asking, but it takes tracking down an administrator, filing an open records request, or both. Wisconsin law requires that governments give the public information when they ask for it, but it does not require that the government make it easy. Especially with the dearth of local news outlets in many communities, this information rarely gets out.

This lack of transparency is not unique to the West Bend School District. The vast majority of Wisconsin’s local governments do a terrible job of making information readily available to the public despite the ease of modern technology that should make it easy to do so. There is nothing preventing local governments from being more transparent. It is a policy choice of each elected government body.

There are exceptions. The city of West Bend, for example, does a terrific job by posting their entire detailed budget online. They also post a detailed spending report, sorted by department, amount, and vendor, that shows everything from a $157,883.83 purchase of road salt to a $35.07 purchase for hand soap. The information is there for anybody to parse, analyze, and form judgments.

This is where Michigan comes in. For reasons not germane to this column, I recently followed the debate for a school bonding proposal (what Wisconsinites would call a school referendum) in Ludington, Mich. They were voting on whether or not to borrow and spend $101 million in a district with a $21 million annual budget. Much of the debate would have been very familiar to Wisconsinites who have been considering referendums, but in researching the district, one can go to the Ludington Area Schools’ website and find a wealth of information.

Right on their website, the school district publishes the complete operating budget, various charts showing how money is spent, each of the full collective bargaining agreements, the health care benefits plan, fiscal audits, compensation packages for employees earning over $100,000, association dues paid by the district, employee reimbursements, amounts spent on lobbying, their deficit reduction plan, the credit card policy, expenses for out-of-state travel for administrators, and other required notices. All of this information is current, detailed, and gives the public a clear view of how the district is managed.

Of course, Ludington is not unique. One can find this information on the website of any school district in Michigan because it is required by state law. Specifically, Section 18 (2) of the Public Act 94 of 1979 requires that school districts publish this information for the public to see.

Wisconsin should follow Michigan’s lead and require that local units of government publish this kind of relevant information on their websites. All of this information already exists in a digital format that could easily be distributed to the public for virtually no cost and minimal effort. This is the kind of information that voters need to be able to make rational, informed decisions about the functioning of their local governments. Come to think of it, state lawmakers should include state government in making this kind of information readily available.

An informed citizenry is required for true self-governance and transparency in government is an issue that transcends all political affiliations. State lawmakers from both political parties should support making sure that every citizen has access to as much information as possible about their governments.

Public information should be made public

My column is online and in print in the Washington County Daily News. Here’s a part of it:

This is where Michigan comes in. For reasons not germane to this column, I recently followed the debate for a school bonding proposal (what Wisconsinites would call a school referendum) in Ludington, Mich. They were voting on whether or not to borrow and spend $101 million in a district with a $21 million annual budget. Much of the debate would have been very familiar to Wisconsinites who have been considering referendums, but in researching the district, one can go to the Ludington Area Schools’ website and find a wealth of information.

Right on their website, the school district publishes the complete operating budget, various charts showing how money is spent, each of the full collective bargaining agreements, the health care benefits plan, fiscal audits, compensation packages for employees earning over $100,000, association dues paid by the district, employee reimbursements, amounts spent on lobbying, their deficit reduction plan, the credit card policy, expenses for out-of-state travel for administrators, and other required notices. All of this information is current, detailed, and gives the public a clear view of how the district is managed.

Of course, Ludington is not unique. One can find this information on the website of any school district in Michigan because it is required by state law. Specifically, Section 18 (2) of the Public Act 94 of 1979 requires that school districts publish this information for the public to see.

Wisconsin should follow Michigan’s lead and require that local units of government publish this kind of relevant information on their websites. All of this information already exists in a digital format that could easily be distributed to the public for virtually no cost and minimal effort. This is the kind of information that voters need to be able to make rational, informed decisions about the functioning of their local governments. Come to think of it, state lawmakers should include state government in making this kind of information readily available.

Wisconsin’s Legislature begins serious budget work

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

When Gov. Tony Evers released his executive budget proposal at the beginning of March, Republican leaders in the Legislature immediately dismissed it as an unserious liberal manifesto — which is precisely what it is. Last week, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee began the serious work of crafting a budget for Wisconsin. Their first step was to toss most of Evers’ silly budget in the trash and start from scratch. Despite Evers’ bravado, the Republicans have a strong hand to play and are on the right side of public opinion.

In a time of divided government, it is worth remembering the relevant powers of each branch of government. The legislative branch has the power to create legislation and the power over where to spend tax dollars. The executive branch has the power over administrative rules (filling in the gaps to execute laws) and the power to veto legislation which the governor disapproves.

Governor Evers has already shown that he is not shy about using his veto power. In fact, he vetoed the middle-class tax cut, which was the very first bill to reach his desk. But while Evers can veto things he does not like, he does not have the power to create laws that he wants. To get a law that he wants to his desk, Evers must be willing to negotiate and compromise with Republicans, but Evers has shown that he has little aptitude or appetite to deal.

This delineation of powers is relevant to the actions taken by the JFC last week. The committee scrapped almost all of Evers’ non-budgetary policy initiatives including expanding Medicaid, legalizing medical marijuana, capping school choice, increasing the minimum wage, granting driver’s licenses to illegal aliens, repealing right-to-work, closing the dark store loophole, ending the property tax levy freeze for counties and municipalities, and dozens of additional initiatives that never belonged in the budget.

What is left are mostly just the nuts and bolts of funding Wisconsin’s state government, which what the budget is supposed to do. As the legislative Republicans go about assembling those nuts and bolts, recent polls show that a majority of Wisconsinites support conservative legislative goals.

For example, in a recent poll of likely voters conducted for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a state business group, found that 60% of likely voters oppose raising property taxes on businesses and 53% oppose raising the gas tax. Some 77% oppose raising taxes on manufacturing, And 69% oppose eliminating the property tax levy freeze, and 77% oppose raising energy taxes. Up to 83% oppose indexing gas taxes and 63% oppose eliminating drug testing for welfare recipients.

All of those things that Wisconsinites oppose were things that Governor Evers included in his budget proposal and the Republican threw out — except for the gas tax increase. Republicans should take note of that. They are on the right side of these issues except for some of the Republican leadership’s maddening affection for raising the gas tax.

Over the next few weeks, the Republican-led Legislature is going to hash out a budget and send it to Governor Evers for his signature. Governor Evers has arguably the most sweeping veto power in the nation with the ability to strike out words and sentences to make the budget more to his liking, or he could veto the whole thing. What he cannot do is write new language into the law. That is the exclusive prerogative of the Legislature.

What Governor Evers decides to do with the budget will determine how likely he is going to be able to get any of his agenda done for the rest of his term. If he uses his veto pen to strike out every Republican initiative he can, then those same Republicans are unlikely to every put a bill that Evers wants on his desk. If he accepts some compromise, then some of the ideas stricken from his budget proposal may see life again in a separate bill.

In the end, the Legislature holds an ace. Wisconsin will not shut down if Evers vetoes the entire budget and the state enters the new fiscal year without a new budget. By law, the old budget that was passed by many of the same legislative Republicans and signed by Gov. Scott Walker will continue in force. From a conservative perspective, a new fiscal year with no spending increases and no tax increases sounds pretty great.

Wisconsin’s Legislature begins serious budget work

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a sample:

Over the next few weeks, the Republican-led Legislature is going to hash out a budget and send it to Governor Evers for his signature. Governor Evers has arguably the most sweeping veto power in the nation with the ability to strike out words and sentences to make the budget more to his liking, or he could veto the whole thing. What he cannot do is write new language into the law. That is the exclusive prerogative of the Legislature.

What Governor Evers decides to do with the budget will determine how likely he is going to be able to get any of his agenda done for the rest of his term. If he uses his veto pen to strike out every Republican initiative he can, then those same Republicans are unlikely to every put a bill that Evers wants on his desk. If he accepts some compromise, then some of the ideas stricken from his budget proposal may see life again in a separate bill.

In the end, the Legislature holds an ace. Wisconsin will not shut down if Evers vetoes the entire budget and the state enters the new fiscal year without a new budget. By law, the old budget that was passed by many of the same legislative Republicans and signed by Gov. Scott Walker will continue in force. From a conservative perspective, a new fiscal year with no spending increases and no tax increases sounds pretty great.

Babies deserve society’s protection

Here is my full column that ran yesterday in the Washington County Daily News

The debate over abortion has taken a gruesome turn and Gov. Tony Evers is in the vanguard of a radical new front in the war on babies.

The dispute about when and if abortion should be allowed in our nation has generally come down to one’s opinion of when life begins, or, to put it another way, when a person becomes a person. Ardent pro-lifers, like myself, believe that life begins at conception.

From a religious point of view, most of the major religions teach that life begins at conception. From a scientific point of view, the moment of conception is when the parents’ DNA commingles to create a new, unique DNA. It is generally accepted that each person has unique DNA and it is a distinguishing characteristic of personhood.

When discussing when it should be allowed to kill a conceived child, those who do not believe that life begins at conception generally try to figure out a point upon the developmental trajectory when the child (or growth, or clump of cells, or whatever) becomes “viable.” Given that human children are unable to survive on their own without the aid of adults until several years after birth, the distinction of when a child is “viable” is utterly arbitrary. But virtually every pro-abortionist puts the point of viability before birth.

Some pro-abortionists put the viability demarcation at the point of pregnancy when the baby could survive outside of the womb with medical help. Some put it at when there is heart and/or brain function. Some put it at when the baby can feel pain. Some put it right up until the moment of birth. These arguments are old and well-worn.

At the root of the debate, however, was the notion of morality and human rights that we do not just kill people. We used to be able to agree that killing humans without the due process of law or an act of war was immoral and barbaric. This was especially the view when it came to killing babies. Pro-abortionists had always argued that abortion is not murder because it does not kill an actual human. Such a stance was a tacit acknowledgment that killing actual humans is wrong. Even the most pro-abortion people who support abortion up until birth would argue that an unborn child is still not an actual human deserving of rights and protections of law and society.

Not anymore.

In response to a wave of pro-abortion legislation being passed in states like New York and Vermont which would dramatically expand when and how abortions are allowed, Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans announced a bill that would protect babies who are born alive after a

botched abortion. Since medical professionals are already morally and legally obligated to protect life and even most pro-abortion people oppose killing babies once they are born, the Republican bill is just common sense.

In an earlier age, the Republican bill would have had broad bipartisan support. All it says is that if a baby is lucky to escape the womb alive during an abortion attempt, the medical personnel would be obligated to provide lifesaving care to the child. After all, once the baby is outside of the womb, we used to all agree that it was a child deserving of protection.

Immediately after the Republicans announced their Born Alive Abortions Survivors bill, Governor Evers rushed to tell anyone who would listen that he will veto the bill. Not wanting to admit that he supports killing babies, or at least letting babies die by withholding medical care, Evers has offered a couple of nonsensical excuses. He has claimed that the law is redundant and not necessary. If so, so what? It takes just as much effort to sign it as it does to veto it. Evers has also said that the law is not necessary because babies never survive abortions. The people who are alive today after botched abortions would take issue with Evers’ assertion. There is no data collected on how many babies have survived an abortion only to be left to die by an ardent abortionist.

Evers gave away the game in his response to President Trump’s comments about the bill during his recent Wisconsin rally. In response to Trump, Evers said, “To say that doctors in the state of Wisconsin are executing babies is just a blasphemy.” What a telling use of the word “blasphemy.” To blaspheme is to speak or act against God or a religious tenet. Evers is so exercised by Trump’s comments because the president had the audacity to blaspheme against the liberal orthodoxy where abortion on demand stands as a pillar of faith.

Even people who believe that life does not begin until birth should support the Born Alive Abortions Survivors bill. Sadly, abortionists are very effective and it is rare for a baby to survive an abortion attempt, but when they do, the least we can do is provide them medical treatment and a chance to live.

Babies deserve society’s protection

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. In it, I note the ghoulish shift in the abortion debate and our governor’s position as chief ghoul. Here’s a taste.

In response to a wave of pro-abortion legislation being passed in states like New York and Vermont which would dramatically expand when and how abortions are allowed, Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans announced a bill that would protect babies who are born alive after a

botched abortion. Since medical professionals are already morally and legally obligated to protect life and even most pro-abortion people oppose killing babies once they are born, the Republican bill is just common sense.

In an earlier age, the Republican bill would have had broad bipartisan support. All it says is that if a baby is lucky to escape the womb alive during an abortion attempt, the medical personnel would be obligated to provide lifesaving care to the child. After all, once the baby is outside of the womb, we used to all agree that it was a child deserving of protection.

Immediately after the Republicans announced their Born Alive Abortions Survivors bill, Governor Evers rushed to tell anyone who would listen that he will veto the bill. Not wanting to admit that he supports killing babies, or at least letting babies die by withholding medical care, Evers has offered a couple of nonsensical excuses. He has claimed that the law is redundant and not necessary. If so, so what? It takes just as much effort to sign it as it does to veto it. Evers has also said that the law is not necessary because babies never survive abortions. The people who are alive today after botched abortions would take issue with Evers’ assertion. There is no data collected on how many babies have survived an abortion only to be left to die by an ardent abortionist.

Evers gave away the game in his response to President Trump’s comments about the bill during his recent Wisconsin rally. In response to Trump, Evers said, “To say that doctors in the state of Wisconsin are executing babies is just a blasphemy.” What a telling use of the word “blasphemy.” To blaspheme is to speak or act against God or a religious tenet. Evers is so exercised by Trump’s comments because the president had the audacity to blaspheme against the liberal orthodoxy where abortion on demand stands as a pillar of faith.

School spending doesn’t help grades

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Speaker Robin Vos agreed with Gov. Tony Evers that Wisconsin’s government schools need an increase in spending in the next state budget. Now they are just arguing over the amount. The push for more and more spending on government schools is being fueled by two myths. The first myth is that more spending will result in better education. The second myth is that we are not spending enough already. Let us debunk those myths.

Wisconsin taxpayers have been increasing spending on public education for decades with little to show for it. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Education, Wisconsin’s government schools spent an average of $3,224 per student in the 1982-1983 school year. By last year, that number had grown to $13,505 per student, or, accounting for inflation, $5,190 in 1982 dollars. That is a 61 percent increase in per-pupil spending in normalized dollars.

With that generous increase in spending, the people should expect a solid increase in educational outcomes, right? Wrong. There isn’t any longitudinal performance data for Wisconsin that stretches back that far. More recent data shows that ACT and standardized test scores have remained stubbornly static in Wisconsin. But countless studies have shown that America’s educational performance has remained static or declined over that time period. Subjectively, few people would attempt to argue that a 2018 graduate received an education that is 61% better than a 1983 graduate. Spending more money has not resulted in a better education.

Yet despite all of the additional spending, our government schools have perpetuated a myth that they are underfunded. That is difficult to believe when they continue to waste so much money. For example, Wisconsin’s government schools allow exceedingly high teacher absenteeism.

The Wisconsin DPI tracks student absenteeism and classifies students who miss ten or more days of school as “high risk.” The federal Department of Education tracks how many teachers are absent for 10 or more days per school year. The most recent data show a lot of high-risk teachers in Washington County. The percentage of teachers who were absent for more than 10 days during the school year was 21.7% in West Bend, 18.5% in Slinger, 28.1% in Germantown, and a whopping 30.8% in Kewaskum. These percentages of chronic absenteeism are stunning given that there are only about 187 annual work days for teachers compared to 260 for most other professions.

According to a study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, teachers in traditional public schools in America are almost three times more likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools, and teachers in unionized charter schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent as their non-unionized charters. Act 10 allowed for school boards to address chronic absenteeism by taking everything off of the union bargaining table except pay, but almost no school districts have taken any action to tackle teacher absenteeism.

Another area where school districts have failed to leverage Act 10 to economize is in the area of health insurance. According to DPI data, Wisconsin school districts spend an average of $20,110 for a family medical insurance plan. Of that, school districts ask employees to pay an average of 11.75% of the premium. That compares to national averages of $18,764 and 33%, respectively. By simply shopping for more economical health insurance plans and asking employees to pay a more reasonable portion of the premium, Wisconsin’s government schools could liberate millions of dollars in their budgets.

Many taxpayers might also be surprised to learn how few of the dollars spent on government schools are actually used for instruction. According to DPI data, Wisconsin’s government schools only spend 53.6% of every dollar on instruction. The rest of it is spent on facilities (6.9%), transportation (3.9%), support staff (9.5%), administration (7.7%), and “other” (13.4%). Any organization that only spends 53.6% of its revenue on its primary function is woefully inefficient.

The evidence shows that spending more on government schools will not result in better educational outcomes. It also shows that Wisconsin’s government schools continue to waste an inordinate amount of money that never even makes it to a classroom. Spending more money on these schools may make politicians feel better about themselves, but it does not benefit kids or families.

School spending doesn’t help grades

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I’m not crazy about the title they gave it. My working title was, “Politicians Agree that Wasting Taxpayer Money Helps their Electoral Prospects.” I admit… that’s a bit verbose. Anyway, here’s a piece to encourage you to go pick up a copy:

Speaker Robin Vos agreed with Gov. Tony Evers that Wisconsin’s government schools need an increase in spending in the next state budget. Now they are just arguing over the amount. The push for more and more spending on government schools is being fueled by two myths. The first myth is that more spending will result in better education. The second myth is that we are not spending enough already. Let us debunk those myths.

Wisconsin taxpayers have been increasing spending on public education for decades with little to show for it. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Education, Wisconsin’s government schools spent an average of $3,224 per student in the 1982-1983 school year. By last year, that number had grown to $13,505 per student, or, accounting for inflation, $5,190 in 1982 dollars. That is a 61 percent increase in per-pupil spending in normalized dollars.

With that generous increase in spending, the people should expect a solid increase in educational outcomes, right? Wrong. There isn’t any longitudinal performance data for Wisconsin that stretches back that far. More recent data shows that ACT and standardized test scores have remained stubbornly static in Wisconsin.But countless studies have shown that America’s educational performance has remained static or declined over that time period. Subjectively, few people would attempt to argue that a 2018 graduate received an education that is 61% better than a 1983 graduate. Spending more money has not resulted in a better education.

Yet despite all of the additional spending, our government schools have perpetuated a myth that they are underfunded. That is difficult to believe when they continue to waste so much money. For example, Wisconsin’s government schools allow exceedingly high teacher absenteeism.

The Wisconsin DPI tracks student absenteeism and classifies students who miss ten or more days of school as “high risk.” The federal Department of Education tracks how many teachers are absent for 10 or more days per school year. The most recent data show a lot of high-risk teachers in Washington County. The percentage of teachers who were absent for more than 10 days during the school year was 21.7% in West Bend, 18.5% in Slinger, 28.1% in Germantown, and a whopping 30.8% in Kewaskum. These percentages of chronic absenteeism are stunning given that there are only about 187 annual work days for teachers compared to 260 for most other professions.

According to a study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, teachers in traditional public schools in America are almost three times more likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter schools, and teachers in unionized charter schools are twice as likely to be chronically absent as their non-unionized charters. Act 10 allowed for school boards to address chronic absenteeism by taking everything off of the union bargaining table except pay, but almost no school districts have taken any action to tackle teacher absenteeism.

Washington County needs an executive

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

The Washington County Board of Supervisors is considering changing the structure of county government to create a county executive instead of the current county administrator structure. The County Board should move swiftly to enact this change in time for the voters of Washington County to elect their first county executive next April.

Wisconsin allows for three forms of county government that have progressively more powerful executive functions. The first form has a very weak administrative coordinator. In this form of government, the county board appoints a coordinator who has very limited power, but is responsible for coordinating and executing the orders from the board. The coordinator does not appoint department heads and does not have any independent budget authority. Thirty three Wisconsin counties use this structure.

The second form has a stronger executive function held by county administrator. The county board still appoints the county administrator, but the administrator has the authority to prepare and present a budget, appoint and remove department heads with confirmation from the county board, and coordinate departments. This is the form of government that Washington County uses along with 28 other counties.

The third form of county government empowers an elected county executive with responsibility for the executive functions of government. In this form, all of the voters in the county elect a single executive. As such, the county executive cannot be removed by the county board. Only the governor can remove a county executive for cause. The county executive has all of the powers and responsibilities of a county administrator, but also has the power to veto county board actions and remove department heads without board confirmation. Eleven, mostly more urban, Wisconsin counties have a county executive including neighboring Fond du Lac, Waukesha, and Milwaukee counties.

The main benefit for Washington County of switching to a county executive form of government is that is gives the electors a single person who represents the entire county. That person would be able to set a vision and direction for the county, as well as be held responsible for the overall performance of county government.

In the current form of Washington County’s government, there are 26 supervisors (still way too many) who each represent a few thousand citizens. They elect a county chairperson, other board officers, and appoint the county administrator. Each county board supervisor is elected to represent the interests of his or her constituents — as it should be. Nobody on the board represents the entire county.

Similarly, if the citizens are dissatisfied with the direction of county government, it is extremely difficult to make their will known across a slate of 26 board supervisors. To enact a change in direction, at least 14 new people must run and win across the county to build a new majority on the County Board. And if the County Board passes something outrageous, there is not any veto check on their action like there is at the state and federal levels of government.

By having a county executive, Washington County would have a single person who would represent the entire county’s interests with businesses, state government, and other interests. The citizens of the county would also have a single person to take their grievances to when a county department fails them. It would make county government more nimble and more responsive to the citizens and external interests.

The down side of having a county executive is that the legislative part of county government, the Board of Supervisors, would have to cede some of their current power over executive functions. This is a small price to pay for the benefits a county executive would bring to the county.

Our nation has a long history of having three separate, distinct branches of government that balance and check each other. Washington County has reached a level of population, complexity, and maturity that make this the right time to create an independent executive branch.

Washington County needs an executive

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. In it, I argue that Washington County needs to move to a County Executive instead of a County Administrator. Here’s a part:

By having a county executive, Washington County would have a single person who would represent the entire county’s interests with businesses, state government, and other interests. The citizens of the county would also have a single person to take their grievances to when a county department fails them. It would make county government more nimble and more responsive to the citizens and external interests.

The down side of having a county executive is that the legislative part of county government, the Board of Supervisors, would have to cede some of their current power over executive functions. This is a small price to pay for the benefits a county executive would bring to the county.

Our nation has a long history of having three separate, distinct branches of government that balance and check each other. Washington County has reached a level of population, complexity, and maturity that make this the right time to create an independent executive branch.

 

Feeling the weight of government

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

April 15. A date that lives in infamy. As the date by which all Americans must submit their income tax forms to make sure the government has extracted enough hard-earned money to fund the bureaucracy, April 15 also serves as a good date to contemplate the cost of government. Given that this April 15 is on the cusp of Wisconsin’s biennial budget debate, it is also a good date to look at how much more costly our new governor wants to make our government.

According to the Tax Foundation, Tax Freedom Day in 2019 is April 16. That means that every dollar that every single American earned up until April 16 is needed to pay the nation’s total tax bill of $5.29 trillion. The nation’s total tax bill is more than the nation’s total combined bill for housing, clothing, and food. Big government isn’t cheap. In Wisconsin, Tax Freedom Day comes even later on April 19. The cost of Wisconsin’s government is still more than most states.

If Governor Tony Evers has his way, Wisconsin’s Tax Freedom Day will push later into the year like Illinois or New York. The governor’s budget proposal includes over a billion dollars in tax increases and would increase taxpayer disparity.

When the Supreme Court ruled last year that states can collect sales and use taxes on internet purchases, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans neutralized the tax burden for Wisconsinites by offsetting the new sales tax collections with an equal across-theboard income tax cut. Governor Evers would reverse that decision and give the entire tax savings to only those in the lowest tax bracket.

At the same time, Evers’ budget proposes increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, a welfare scheme paid through the income tax system, and lower taxes in the lower tax brackets. All of these ideas would lower income taxes for those at the lower end of the income scale.

In order to make up for tax decreases to the lower brackets, Governor Evers would increase taxes on the higher brackets by forcing single people who earn more than $100,000 and couples who earn more than $150,000 to pay regular income taxes on their capital gains. This is estimated to increase taxes by $505 million on Wisconsin’s higher earners.

For some perspective, figures calculated by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance show that income filers earning over $100,000 comprise about 12% of all income tax payers, but they pay over 61% of all income taxes in the state. Evers’ budget proposal would continue the effort to foist more and more of the cost of government on an ever smaller group of income earners.

Not content to only hammer individual taxpayers with higher taxes, Evers would also cap the Manufacturers and Agriculture Credit to a mere $300,000 of income for manufacturers. This is projected to result in a whopping $516.6 million in higher taxes on Wisconsin’s manufacturers.

Just in case anyone thought they might escape Evers’ tax increases, he also proposed to increase gas taxes by eight cents a gallon and then index the tax increases to inflation. That way taxes would automatically increase without politicians having to bother going on record to do it with a vote. This would raise taxes another $485 million through the budget term.

Governor Evers has made it perfectly clear how much he would raise taxes if he had the power to do so on his own. As the legislative Republicans formulate their budget proposals, they should begin with the mirror image of Governor Evers’ proposal. The Republicans should start with a billion dollar tax cut for all Wisconsinites and let the Governor try to negotiate from that starting position.

Wisconsin’s tax burden is not good, but it has been improving for the last eight years. Republicans should fight hard to maintain that trajectory for the benefit of all Wisconsinites.

Feeling the weight of government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. It seemed appropriate on tax day to take another look at all of the tax increases that Governor Evers wants to impose on us. Here’s a taste:

Governor Evers has made it perfectly clear how much he would raise taxes if he had the power to do so on his own. As the legislative Republicans formulate their budget proposals, they should begin with the mirror image of Governor Evers’ proposal. The Republicans should start with a billion dollar tax cut for all Wisconsinites and let the Governor try to negotiate from that starting position.

Wisconsin’s tax burden is not good, but it has been improving for the last eight years. Republicans should fight hard to maintain that trajectory for the benefit of all Wisconsinites.

 

Voters vote ‘no’ on school referendum. Now what?

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

The voters in the West Bend School District voiced a definitive “no” to the referendum question to raise taxes and borrow $47 million to build and renovate buildings. Now that the School Board has that answer, they must plan to meet the needs of the district within the taxpayers’ means.

Going into the election, the superintendent and School Board president said that there was not a “plan B” if the referendum did not pass. Such a statement is a gross admission of poor management. That kind of planning is like a guy running up his credit cards and neglecting his house because he plans to win the lottery. Well, the district did not win the referendum lottery. Now they need to manage the taxpayers’ finances responsibly.

When it comes to schools, everything is driven by one number: enrollment. It determines both the revenue and expense side of the equation. According to the most recent enrollment projections prepared for the West Bend School Board by the Applied Population Laboratory at UW-Madison, enrollment for the district will be declining substantially for the foreseeable future. Using four modeling techniques, they project that by the 2027-2028 school year, enrollment will decline between 11.6 percent and 20.3 percent across the district. That is between 772 and 1,345 fewer kids in the district in less than 10 years.

This decline in enrollment is not a reflection on the West Bend School District. It is a trend that is impacting government schools across the state due to the availability of more school options and a demographic shift of young adults having fewer kids. The decline in enrollment is neither good nor bad. It just is. And our government schools are responsible for providing a great education for the kids we have — not the kids they wish we had. This is the reality that the School Board must manage to.

On the revenue side, this means that the district can expect flat to declining revenue every year. Most of the district’s revenue comes from two sources. The property tax levy raises about $38.5 million. Due to revenue limits imposed 25 years ago, the school district is limited by how much they can raise property taxes every year. State taxpayers kick in about $30.7 million to the West Bend School District. Both the revenue limits and state aid are driven by enrollment. As enrollment declines, the School Board can expect less state aid and they will not be able to raise property taxes enough to compensate due to revenue limits.

The good news is that as revenue declines with enrollment, so do expenses. While it is difficult to reduce spending with a decline in enrollment of one child, a reduction in enrollment of 10 percent to 20 percent is a different story. All fixed costs become variable costs with time. Roughly 70 percent of the district’s expenses are for salaries and benefits for employees. The other 30 percent goes to everything else. It is reasonable to expect that the district should reduce the number of employees commensurate to the number of children being educated. Likewise, with 1.14 million square feet of buildings in the district, it is reasonable to expect that the district can reduce the number of buildings to match what the kids need.

What does this mean in real terms? It means that the West Bend School Board should plan on reducing the number of employees in a controlled manner. The easy way is to not backfill retirements and resignations, but if that is not enough, then separations based on the needs of the kids and the district must be done. It is not an attack on teachers to let them go when they are not needed. It is responsible planning to meet the needs of fewer kids.

Similarly, as the buildings in the district become less utilized, the School Board must consider plans to consolidate facilities. The school district has five elementary schools. Would four be enough if there are 20 percent fewer kids? Of course. This is always a contentious issue, but it does not have to be. The mission of the school district is to educate kids — not operate unnecessary buildings.

As the School Board manages a projected decline in enrollment, they should also work to eliminate unnecessary expenses by fully utilizing Act 10. For example, asking employees to pay the same percentage of their health insurance premiums that most taxpayers pay would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. This budgetary liquidity would allow the district to pay great teachers more money by implementing the merit pay system that was abandoned last year.

The voters of the West Bend School District sent a very clear message to the School Board. The voters expect the School Board to work with the money they already have. Knowing that the district is facing a systemic decline in enrollment, the School Board must manage to that reality.