Tag Archives: Washington County Daily News

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

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

During the deliberation about Wisconsin’s current budget, the most contentious issue was about whether or not we should increase spending on the state’s transportation infrastructure. One reason that the debate was so heated is because with Wisconsin’s segregated transportation fund, increasing spending means an unpopular increase in taxes. As we begin debating Wisconsin’s next budget, transportation spending is again a hot issue, but the lines of battle need to move.

The state of Wisconsin first segregated the transportation fund from the general fund in 1945, some 22 years before the Department of Transportation was created. Wisconsin has several taxes and fees that shovel money into the transportation fund including gas taxes, registration fees, fees on rental vehicles, airline property taxes, railroad property taxes, outdoor advertising revenue, etc. The two primary transportation funding sources are the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

All of these funding sources have one thing in common. They are meant to serve as a proxy for usage. The underlying philosophy of transportation funding in Wisconsin is that people who use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure more should pay more for it. The difficulty is that as the technology of transportation has advanced and diversified, usage proxies like fuel consumption have become less valid.

Setting aside for the moment the debate over whether or not Wisconsin needs to spend more on transportation (we do not), in the current paradigm, if Wisconsin wants to spend more, then we need to raise existing taxes or find new ones. Neither of those options has been popular.

Several states have implemented toll roads to generate more revenue, but the idea has been almost universally rejected in Wisconsin. The idea of a tax on actual mileage has been floated in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but the thought of the government tracking our vehicles is distasteful.

The friction between the opposition to increased taxes grinding against the push for more transportation spending is what creates the heat for the political debate. The friction is misplaced. The heart of the debate is centered on the supposition that only the people who directly use Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure should be the ones to pay for it. That is why the transportation fund is segregated and that is why all of the supporting taxes and fees are targeted at people who use the transportation system. The supposition is flawed.

Everyone in Wisconsin benefits from Wisconsin’s transportation infrastructure irrespective of how much they actually use it themselves. Every Wisconsinites benefits either directly or indirectly from the commerce that relies on our transportation infrastructure, the goods and services delivered to our homes and retailers, the accessibility of emergency services, and so much more. The person who does not own a car and has everything delivered to their home benefits just as much as the avid driver who is on the road several times a day.

If everyone benefits from our transportation infrastructure, why are we getting twisted around the axle of who pays for it? Shouldn’t we all pay for it? Wisconsinites have long since agreed that we all benefit from, and all should pay for, education, law enforcement, environmental protections, etc. It is time for transportation to join the club.

While some taxes and fees are designated for transportation needs and lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from spending that revenue on other needs, the spending for transportation can come from any source. Over the years, it has been quite common for the budget to transfer tax revenue from the general fund to the transportation fund to supplement the spending. In the current budget, over $82 million was spent on transportation from the general fund.

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmental protection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

Wisconsin does not need to spend more on transportation infrastructure, but if lawmakers think it does, they do not need to raise taxes. They can easily use the general fund to increase spending and explain to the taxpayers why it is a priority. That is their job.

Transportation spending is a matter of priorities

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I point out that the lines of battle over transportation funding/spending are in the wrong place. We don’t have to raise taxes to spend more on transportation. If people think we need to spend more (I don’t), then they just need to prioritize it over other needs like education, prisons, etc. It about priorities and one of the biggest priorities should be to NOT raise taxes. Here’s a part:

If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation in the next budget, there is no need to raise taxes, implement toll roads, or create new taxes. All they have to do is designate more money from the general fund. The taxes and fees that feed the transportation fund create a spending floor, but lawmakers can spend as much as they want above and beyond that by using the general fund.

The rub is that the general fund, fueled by income, sales, and other taxes, is what is used to fund all of the other state’s priorities like education, environmentalprotection, law enforcement, and so much more. If lawmakers want to spend more on transportation from the general fund, they will need to explain why transportation needs the money more than all of the other budget needs. In other words, lawmakers will need to prioritize transportation spending along with all of the other needs of the state.

This is part of the normal budgeting process. Budgets are statements of priorities. There is always an infinite list of spending needs and wants and a limited amount of money to go around. Lawmakers are elected and paid to set those priorities and make the hard choices on behalf of their constituents.

The segregation of transportation funding all of these years has let lawmakers off the hook from the responsibility of prioritizing transportation spending. By having designated taxes for transportation, lawmakers could just spend every dollar generated by those taxes without having to explain why putting a dollar into concrete is more important than keeping a felon locked up or paying a teacher. The debate should not be about which transportation taxes need to be increased to support more spending. The debate should be about why spending more money on transportation is more important than spending that money on something else.

 

 

Hazy sunshine in local government

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I share my uneven experiences with Open Records Requests with three local governments. Here’s a part:

What have we learned about the ability for a Wisconsin citizen to peer into the workings of our government?

First, if a government wants to be obstinate, there is not much that a citizen can do about it. While the city of West Bend and Washington County were appropriately responsive and cooperative, the West Bend School District and board members threw up multiple roadblocks including ignoring requests and imposing an unnecessary and exorbitant fees. As a private citizen, all one can do is sue the government at great personal expense or file a complaint with the district attorney or attorney general. Historically, neither agency has ever been aggressive in enforcing open records laws. Government looks out for government.

Second, all three governments are doing a poor job of retaining and making available public records to occur outside of government-provided technology. In our modern age, it is not uncommon for public officials to communicate with citizens, vendors, lobbyists, employees, and others through multiple digital channels including SMS, social media, and various chat technologies. In fact, this is becoming commonplace with the ubiquitousness of personal devices.

If those public officials are using those technologies, they are creating a public record that should be open to public scrutiny for a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, it is far too easy for our government officials to conduct themselves as angels in their official email while hiding their corruption in their personal devices. Every government needs to take the proactive step to implement policies regarding the preservation and retention of public records irrespective of format.

Wisconsin has great laws regarding open records, but they are only as good as government officials are willing to obey and enforce them. We still have work to do to ensure that our government is open and accountable.

 

Conservative leadership works

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

Most often, good government is boring government. For the better part of a decade, the goings on at the city of West Bend have been boring. The city has paid off debt, kept spending and taxes down, increased the fund balance, improved the city’s bond rating, controlled costs, etc. — all while maintaining and improving essential services and tackling a couple of big projects. Boring? Yes. But it is precisely the kind of boring that is the hallmark of good government.

At the dawn of the current decade, West Bend was in trouble. The city had been transitioning from a vibrant manufacturing and commercial center to more of a mixed economy. The presence of county government, MPTC, UWWC, and other government entities helped insulate some city residents from the worst of the Great Recession, but the private sector was hit hard. Unemployment peaked at 14.1 percent and wages were down.

City government was struggling to make ends meet. In 2010, the debt service of almost $6 million per year to make payments on $80 million in debt consumed over 23 percent of the city’s operations budget. The city’s unassigned fund balance was floating at about 11 percent — well below the standard of 17 percent that the Government Finance Officers Association (GFAO) considers the benchmark for fiscal stability. City leaders at the time were using debt as a crutch to maintain bloated spending without raising taxes in a community that has always been resistant to tax increases.

West Bend needed a change. West Bend needed leadership.

Following the Great Recession, many local residents, many of whom were energized by the Tea Party movement sweeping the nation, began to look to their own communities. In West Bend, strong conservatives began running for local office with an eye to infusing city government with conservative leadership. Conservatives like Tony Turner (2008), Ed Duquaine (2010), Steve Hutchins (2011), Randy Koehler (2011), Kraig Sadownikow (2011) and others challenged more liberal incumbents and won with a strong conservative agenda.

As 2019 dawns, the residents of West Bend can see the results of several years of conservative leadership. For several years, the city has been steadily paying off debt without adding to it. This has brought the $80 million debt down to $53 million — a 34 percent reduction in total debt. The payments on that debt have dropped from $5.94 million in 2010 to a budgeted $3.74 million in 2019. That is a drop from 23 percent of the city’s operations budget to just under 15 percent and has freed up $2.2 million in budget that can now be spent on city services instead of debt.

Meanwhile, the Unassigned Fund Balance, which used to sit at a paltry 11 percent, is now a healthy 25 percent. The increase in this fund balance above the recommended floor of 17 percent is one of the driving factors behind the city’s improving bond rating.

Through all of this, the city has kept spending flat. In 2019, the city of West Bend’s Operations Budget will be $25.25 million. That is $0.1 million decrease from the 2010 budget. Accounting for inflation, the city has been reducing spending while reducing debt and taxes. Meanwhile, city services are as good as ever, downtown is thriving, and the city’s private sector economy is blossoming.

None of this happened by magic. Mayor Sadownikow and the conservatives on the Common Council have accomplished this by making smart, conservative decisions over and over again while not succumbing to chattering spenders constantly in their ears.

For example, in 2012 there was a legitimate need to renovate and expand the city hall and city police department, which are in the same building. Ideas ranged from building a new facility for the police department to moving city hall into downtown to renovating the existing building. The price tag ranged into the tens of millions. In the end, city leaders took the prudent step of doing just what they needed to renovate the existing building at a cost of $8.6 million. Some of the aldermen even picked up some hammers to volunteer their labor for part of the demolition to control costs. It wasn’t a flashy new building, but it served the needs of the community.

Another seemingly small decision with big dividends was getting employee benefits under control with the power of Act 10 and negotiating with the fire and police unions. For example, for years, part of the West Bend contract with our firefighters allowed them to convert sick leave to health insurance payments when they retired as early as age 52. While it made sense when health insurance was cheap decades ago, it had ballooned into a $17 million unfunded liability for city taxpayers.

Through negotiations and cooperation with the firefighters union, the city began pulling back that obligation in 2013 and are eliminating it in 2019. City taxpayers will honor the obligation for older employees, but replace it with a funded Post Employment Health Plan for new employees. This will completely eliminate the city’s unfunded liability bomb with the next generation of city firefighters while still providing for their post retirement needs.

Good local government is not about fancy new buildings, flamboyant politicians, or flashy initiatives. It is about good decisions, rooted in common sense and humble restraint, consistently made for the long term benefit of the community. The city of West Bend is doing it right.

Conservative leadership works

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. For those who say that I never have anything good to say about government, well…

Most often, good government is boring government. For the better part of a decade, the goings on at the city of West Bend have been boring. The city has paid off debt, kept spending and taxes down, increased the fund balance, improved the city’s bond rating, controlled costs, etc. — all while maintaining and improving essential services and tackling a couple of big projects. Boring? Yes. But it is precisely the kind of boring that is the hallmark of good government.

Read the rest by picking up a copy or signing up online!

Evers begins to stock his cabinet

Here’s my full column from the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Governor-elect Tony Evers is deep into his transition to power and has begun to announce his choices to fill his cabinet. While none of the picks are surprising, they do confirm the kind of governor that Tony Evers intends to be.

To run the Department of Administration, Evers has chosen Joel Brennan, the CEO of the Milwaukee’s Discovery World Science and Technology Museum. Brennan is an old Democratic operative who previously ran Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s campaigns for governor and mayor. Brennan’s brother-in-law is also a co-chair of Evers’ transition team. Brennan’s deep roots in Wisconsin’s Democratic political structure will put a firm stamp on the Department of Administration.

Evers has chosen Preston Cole to run the Department of Natural Resources. Cole currently works as the commissioner of neighborhood services under Mayor Tom Barrett and has been a member of the DNR’s board since 2007. Garnering praise from Governor Scott Walker, Cole has a degree in forest management and a long history of involvement with environmental management.

Sara Meaney has been chosen by Evers to run Wisconsin’s Department of Tourism. Meaney currently works as the chief marketing and development officer at Milwaukee Film. Meaney has a background in Milwaukee’s arts community and is a member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

Evers has picked Kevin Carr to serve as secretary of the Department of Corrections. Carr is a United States marshal who previously worked for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years.

Brad Pfaff has been selected to run the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Pfaff is another old-time Democratic political insider who worked for Congressman Ron Kind, U.S. SenatorHerb Kohl, as a political appointee in the Obama Administration, and has run for state office as a Democrat in the past.

Evers has chosen Rebecca Valcq to chair the Public Service Commission. Valcq is a lawyer and partner at Milwaukee’s Quarles and Brady law firm. She also spent 15 years working for We Energies as a regulatory attorney.

Mark Afable is to be Wisconsin’s insurance commissioner, pending Senate confirmation. A graduate of Marquette Law, Afable is currently the chief legal officer for American Family Insurance in Madison.

Evers’ most controversial Cabinet choice to date is for Craig Thompson to run the Department of Transportation. Thompson is the executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin. In that role for the last decade, he has been a vocal and aggressive lobbyist on behalf of road builders and unions to spend more money on transportation. Thompson’s selection is the strongest signal yet that Evers will push for a massive increase in spending, and the taxes to fund that spending, in the next budget.

Each of Evers’ cabinet choices will have to meet the approval of the Wisconsin state Senate, which remains firmly in Republican control. Under the new rules signed into law a couple of weeks ago, a cabinet appointee who fails to receive confirmation by the Senate will not be allowed to continue to serve in that office or be reappointed. As such, Evers will need to work with the Senate majority to ensure that his choices will gain approval.

In looking at the list of Evers’ appointments so far, one thing really sticks out. Except for Pfaff, every appointee is from Milwaukee or Madison. This makes complete sense when one considers how Evers won the election. His narrow victory was thanks to overwhelming liberal turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties. The Democratic power base is increasingly concentrated in these two counties, so it stands to reason that a Democratic administration would be filled with operatives from these geographies.

The political divisions in Wisconsin, like in the rest of America, are increasingly along the lines of rural vs. urban instead of left vs. right. At least for the next four years, Wisconsin’s urban interests are going to be in control of the executive branch.

Evers begins to stock his cabinet

My column in the Washington County Daily News this week is about Tony Evers and his cabinet choices. Here’s a little piece.

In looking at the list of Evers’ appointments so far, one thing really sticks out. Except for Pfaff, every appointee is from Milwaukee or Madison. This makes complete sense when one considers how Evers won the election. His narrow victory was thanks to overwhelming liberal turnout in Dane and Milwaukee counties. The Democratic power base is increasingly concentrated in these two counties, so it stands to reason that a Democratic administration would be filled with operatives from these geographies.

The political divisions in Wisconsin, like in the rest of America, are increasingly along the lines of rural vs. urban instead of left vs. right. At least for the next four years, Wisconsin’s urban interests are going to be in control of the executive branch.

Avoid the pension bomb

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

Last week, this column advised that the next state budget strengthen the state’s financial foundation by moving state government employees from a defined benefit (pension) plan to a defined contribution (401(k) or IRA) plan. This week, let us delve deeper into why this would be good for state employees and Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

One of the great ticking budgetary time bombs in our nation is the looming unfunded pension obligation. State and local politicians have promised government retirees much more money than they have actually budgeted. In total, the unfunded pension debt for all state and local governments is almost $1.4 trillion, based on research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

This means that taxpayers around the nation are on the hook for $1.4 trillion to be paid to retirees that has not been set aside. That bill will come due and taxpayers will be forced to pay the debt by raising taxes, reducing government services, reneging on their promise to retirees, or, most likely, all of the above. Out-of-control pension debt has already bankrupted several cities, including Detroit, and is pushing several states, like Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut, to the brink of insolvency. Pension plans are a relic of the past. They are from a time when it was difficult for regular people to access the investment markets and people living to 80 was unusual. Pension plans have bankrupted some of America’s largest companies and are now impacting governments. That is why only 19 percent of private-sector workers still have a pension while 87 percent of government workers have one.

Thanks to the sound budgetary management of Wisconsin’s politicians of both parties, Wisconsin is not facing an immediate crisis. As of 2016, Wisconsin’s pension obligation is about $93 billion and the Wisconsin Retirement System is about 99 percent funded, leaving a relatively small deficit of $853 million.

It is precisely because Wisconsin is in a fiscal position of strength that we should make changes for the future now. Remember that every pension bomb is the result of people with good intentions making bad decisions. Wisconsin is not immune from the blowback of human nature. Waiting until we are in a crisis before making changes will only lead to poor decisions and bad consequences.

The benefits to taxpayers of moving Wisconsin’s government employees to a 401(k)-style retirement plan are huge. First and foremost, it eliminates the potential of the pension bomb blowing up Wisconsin’s budget. Since the pension fund is almost fully funded, it will take some sound management to make sure it is properly drawn down to pay out the pensions of everyone currently under it. Meanwhile, taxpayers will not have any unfunded obligations to new employees or employees who choose to switch to the new plan.

Second, eliminating the pension will help encourage a healthy turnover of employees. Since a retiree’s pension is calculated based on their final average earnings and years of service, too many government employees hang on long after their passion for the work has waned. At the other end of the scale, Wisconsin’s pension plan allows employees to retire as early as age 50 with full benefits. This leaves taxpayers paying for a retiree for another 30 to 40 years while also paying a replacement employee. A 401(k) plan, in which the employee owns their retirement fund and can take it with them whenever they want, is a benefit to taxpayers and the employee.

For Wisconsin’s government employees, moving to a 401(k) or IRA plan has even more benefits. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that employees would own their retirement funds and not be subject to the problems of future politicians. The possibility of having benefits reduced or eliminated due to lack of money is not a hypothetical scenario. It has happened to thousands upon thousands of workers in our nation as private and public pension plans have slipped into insolvency. By taking ownership of their own retirement funds, employees are only subject to the amount of risk they choose to take on.

Furthermore, government employees would no longer feel a need to be a slave to their pension. They are free to move on to a different job in the private sector whenever they choose without negative consequences. Employees will also be able to choose the investment portfolio that most closely matches their tolerance for risk. If they want to be super safe, that’s great. If they want to risk for potentially more return that’s great, too. Government should always lean in favor of empowering individuals to make their own choices.

Also, unlike pensions, 401(k) and IRA plans have the ability to create generational wealth. Pension benefits cannot be passed on to the next generation. When the employee and their spouse die, the pension dies with them. The unused balance of 401(k) and IRA plans can be passed on when the owner dies. This helps facilitate generational wealth creation for Wisconsin families.

By moving Wisconsin’s government employees to a 401(k) plan now, the state can honor its obligations to employees and retirees under the current pension plan, provide a fantastic benefit for new employees, and protect future generations of taxpayers from a debt bomb exploding in their wallets.

Avoid the pension bomb

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a taste, but go pick up a copy!

Pension plans are a relic of the past. They are from a time when it was difficult for regular people to access the investment markets and people living to 80 was unusual. Pension plans have bankrupted some of America’s largest companies and are now impacting governments. That is why only 19 percent of private-sector workers still have a pension while 87 percent of government workers have one.

Thanks to the sound budgetary management of Wisconsin’s politicians of both parties, Wisconsin is not facing an immediate crisis. As of 2016, Wisconsin’s pension obligation is about $93 billion and the Wisconsin Retirement System is about 99 percent funded, leaving a relatively small deficit of $853 million.

It is precisely because Wisconsin is in a fiscal position of strength that we should make changes for the future now. Remember that every pension bomb is the result of people with good intentions making bad decisions. Wisconsin is not immune from the blowback of human nature. Waiting until we are in a crisis before making changes will only lead to poor decisions and bad consequences.

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.

Public input on the next state budget

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

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.

Legislature has a full plate for the holidays

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. As the sun rises on Wisconsin, I’m happy to see that the legislature is getting most of this done. Good work!

This week the Wisconsin Legislature will begin an extraordinary session as its final act before a new Legislature takes its place next year. The political backdrop of this session is that while the Republicans will retain firm control of both houses of the Legislature next year, the voters elected Democrats to every statewide office. An era of divided government is about to begin.

In anticipation of this new era, Republican leaders in the Legislature have introduced a slew of proposals designed to secure the successes of the past few years and put some protections in place to safeguard the state from overreaches from the Executive Branch. The proposals run the gamut from simply codifying rules that are already in place, absorbing recent court rulings into statute, pulling power back into the legislative branch and changing how elections work. A few of the proposals are more interesting than the rest.

Earlier this year, a United States Supreme Court ruling allowed states to collect sales taxes on internet purchases. Under law, the state is required to collect the tax, but to offset the tax increase by reducing the state income tax by an equal amount. This would keep the aggregate tax burden on Wisconsinites constant. One of the proposals would clean up the process for making this happen and accelerate the potential income tax decrease into 2019 instead of 2020. This makes it take effect in line with both years of the state’s biennial budget. The Legislature should absolutely pass this proposal.

In another proposal, the state would create a standalone presidential primary and move it earlier in the year. The reasons are twofold. First, by moving the presidential primary earlier in the election cycle, it makes Wisconsin more relevant in that process. Second, by creating a standalone election for the presidential primary, it prevents non-partisan state and local elections on the April ballot from being overwhelmed by the partisan presidential primary. The Legislature should pass this change.

The actual reason for the extraordinary session is to pass an aid package to encourage Kimberly-Clark to keep their factories, and the jobs that go with them, open in Wisconsin. For all of the reasons I outlined in a column in this space in July, the Legislature should not pass this proposal.

One proposal would require that the Legislature be included in defending the laws it writes if those laws are challenged as unconstitutional. In recent years, liberals have adopted the tactic of suing the state over every law Republicans passed by claiming that the law is somehow unconstitutional, and then shopping for a friendly radical liberal judge to issue an injunction. It is the job of the state attorney general to defend the state in such actions, but the incoming attorney general, Josh Kaul, is an acolyte of Eric Holder and has made no secret about the fact that he will use his office as a weapon to advance the radical liberal agenda. This proposal would ensure that the state’s laws are adequately defended against legal challenges and should certainly be passed.

Yet another proposal would prohibit a person from serving in an appointed position if the state Senate had rejected their appointment during the confirmation process. It would seem common sense that this is already the case, but it is not. Under law, the governor can appoint a person, the senate can reject that appointment and the governor can keep the person in the job indefinitely in a provisional capacity. This proposal would make it clear that once an appointee is rejected, they may no longer stay in the job. This should be passed.

Several other proposals codify which IDs are acceptable for voting, ensures that people will be required to remain sober in order to obtain welfare, writes into law rules that prevent illegal aliens from getting a Wisconsin driver’s license, provides legislative oversight when the state seeks federal approvals or waivers, requires state agencies to periodically report their spending to the Legislature, oblige the Department of Corrections to provide the Legislature a report on who is pardoned, make it easier for overseas citizens to vote and other relatively mundane things.

While every proposal must be evaluated on its own merits, almost every one of the proposals should be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker. The conservative revolution in Wisconsin has come to an end. Now it is time for Republicans to protect the gains we made.

Legislature has a full plate for the holidays

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online today. In it, I offer some opinion on some of the proposals being offered in the Wisconsin legislature’s extraordinary session. Pick up a copy to read the whole thing!

This week the Wisconsin Legislature will begin an extraordinary session as its final act before a new Legislature takes its place next year. The political backdrop of this session is that while the Republicans will retain firm control of both houses of the Legislature next year, the voters elected Democrats to every statewide office. An era of divided government is about to begin.

In anticipation of this new era, Republican leaders in the Legislature have introduced a slew of proposals designed to secure the successes of the past few years and put some protections in place to safeguard the state from overreaches from the Executive Branch. The proposals run the gamut from simply codifying rules that are already in place, absorbing recent court rulings into statute, pulling power back into the legislative branch and changing how elections work. A few of the proposals are more interesting than the rest.

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While every proposal must be evaluated on its own merits, almost every one of the proposals should be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by outgoing Gov. Scott Walker. The conservative revolution in Wisconsin has come to an end. Now it is time for Republicans to protect the gains we made.

On guns, taxation, and tyranny

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

Governor Elect Tony Evers has begun to select his staff and he is choosing people from the far Left of the political spectrum. This indicates that Evers does not have any intention of compromising with the Republican-led legislature. Evers plans to govern from and for the radical Leftist base that elected him. Radical Leftist doctrine dictates that Evers must seek to restrict gun rights and raise taxes. Wisconsin made a lot of progress on both of those issues under Governor Scott Walker, so it is a good time to go back to basics and remember why gun rights and lower taxes are important.

When the Founders of our great nation enshrined the protection of the individual right to keep and bear arms in the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, they did so for a single reason: to preserve the ability of the people to throw off a government that has become despotic.

When the Bill of Rights was written, the American experiment in self-governance was still in its infancy. The soldiers’ wounds were still healing from the long war of secession from the Great Britain and the dead were still being mourned by their families. Newly minted Americans had paid a heavy price to throw off one despotic government and knew that it would take just as much blood if they had to do it again.

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms does not exist for the purpose of hunting, shooting sports, or even self-defense. It exists, as the Declaration of Independence says, so that, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Throwing off a government requires an armed populace, which is why every tyrannical regime in the history of humankind has disarmed its citizens.

Americans are free because they are armed, and they are armed because they are free.

One of the principal powers granted to any government is the power to tax. At its best, a good government will collect taxes from the citizenry and use it for things that are for the general good, and for which the private sector is ill-equipped to do. The obvious things that fit this kinds of use of tax dollars are the military, law enforcement, large infrastructure needs, border enforcement, etc. At its worst, a bad government will collect taxes from the citizenry and use them to enrich favored people, oppress other people, or just waste the tax money. Welfare, corporate cronyism, wasteful government spending, etc. are examples of bad governance.

A totalitarian government can be a good government, but it is illegitimate without the consent of the governed. Conversely, a representative government can be a bad government when a tyranny of the majority fleeces a minority for its own gain.

In a totalitarian government, the power to tax is absolute and people must pay what the autocrat demands, or suffer consequences ranging from confiscation to imprisonment to death. In a representative government, the only difference is that it is not a single autocrat demanding the tax, but the majority of citizens. The consequences of refusing to pay a tax in a representative government is the same as in a totalitarian government.

Governments, whether totalitarian or representative, are the only entity in a civil society with the legal power to commit violence. That violence is directed against enemies of the nation in the form of a military, and it is directed against citizens of the nation who disobey the laws set forth by the government. The power of government is based on applied violence.

Oppressive taxes are not only a drain on our economy and fuel for bad government, but it siphons the ability of individuals to pursue their own happiness. Every dollar a government spends is a dollar that was taken from someone who can no longer use it for their own needs and wants.

Over the next several years, we can expect the Evers Administration to make a strong push to restrict gun rights and raise taxes. State legislators and the citizens of Wisconsin must see through the toxic rhetorical gas and fight for principles of more gun rights and less taxes.

A letter of thanks to Gov. Scott Walker

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

Dear Gov. Scott Walker,

Like many Wisconsinites, I was truly disappointed to see the voters of our state decline to elect you for a third term. I can say with confidence that you have been the most transformational and important governor of my lifetime. We are all currently enjoying the fruits of your efforts with record employment, higher wages, lower taxes and so much more. While your accomplishments over two short terms number in the hundreds, if not thousands, I would like to highlight a few of your achievements for which I am personally particularly thankful.

I cannot begin any list like this without putting Act 10 at the top. In terms of transformational reforms, Act 10 ranks high. Not only did it put power back into the hands of local governments to serve their constituents without being choked by union contracts, but it also saved taxpayers billions of dollars in money that was being wantonly wasted. Thank you.

You managed to pull Wisconsin into the 21st century of civil rights by enacting concealed carry. As a matter of individual liberty, the concealed carry law is an important protection of our natural and civil right to keep and bear arms. It also has the additional benefit of allowing Wisconsinites to carry lethal force to protect themselves when the worst happens. Thank you.

Freezing tuition for all University of Wisconsin schools has a two-pronged benefit. First, it saved Wisconsinites thousands of dollars and made it more affordable for more kids to obtain a higher education. Second, it forced the UW System to economize — or at least think about economizing. Thank you.

I certainly am thankful for the lower taxes that you enacted. Lower income taxes and the complete elimination of the state property tax have helped my family and many others. Plus, lower taxes on businesses has had a positive impact on our state’s economy. Thank you.

As a hunter, conservationist and homeowner, I appreciate the new attitude that you engendered in the Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies. In the past, the DNR took an aggressive and adversarial stance with citizens in the enforcement of environmental regulations and wildlife management. Now the DNR works with citizens and businesses to help them comply with the law, thus leading to a better citizen experience and better environmental enforcement. Thank you.

The expansion of school choice to the entire state has been a tremendous blessing for families who were unable to choose a different school for their children when their children were unable to be successful in current public school — even if they could not afford it due to their financial circumstances. School choice has also helped shift the culture in many of our public schools to make them more accountable to the parents and children they serve. Thank you.

Persuading Foxconn to build their facility in Wisconsin was truly the culmination of all of your efforts to make Wisconsin a more attractive place for businesses to build and grow. The Foxconn factory and offices will be massive, but even more so all of the supporting businesses that are springing up. Foxconn is the largest economic development that you had a hand in, but it is only one of thousands of other economic successes blossoming in our state. Never in my lifetime did I think that Wisconsin would have more jobs than available workers, but we do. Thank you.

Finally, and I know this actually goes back to your tenure as the Milwaukee County executive, but every time I drive into General Mitchell International Airport, I am glad that I do not have to drive past a ridiculous colossal Blue Shirt on the side of the parking garage. Thank you.

As you ponder the end of this chapter of your public service career, I hope that you can look back with pride on what you have accomplished for millions of Wisconsinites and the generations to come. Your hard work and passion for the people of Wisconsin and your conservative principles have paid off. You weren’t just marking time. You made a difference.

A letter of thanks to Gov. Scott Walker

My column in the Washington County Daily News today is a letter of thanks to Governor Walker. Click through to read the whole thing.

Dear Gov. Scott Walker,

Like many Wisconsinites, I was truly disappointed to see the voters of our state decline to elect you for a third term. I can say with confidence that you have been the most transformational and important governor of my lifetime. We are all currently enjoying the fruits of your efforts with record employment, higher wages, lower taxes and so much more. While your accomplishments over two short terms number in the hundreds, if not thousands, I would like to highlight a few of your achievements for which I am personally particularly thankful.

Governing is harder with diverse opinions

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday. Given the election results, it seems well-timed.

Now that this election season is coming to a close, our soon-to-be newly elected, or re-elected, Wisconsin politicians must turn their attention to solving our state’s problems. If they think that this political campaign was hard, governing a state with such diverse opinions is harder.

Throughout the campaign, Wisconsinites have repeatedly called out the issues that need attention. Wisconsinites consistently identify education and the economy as top issues of concern. Unfortunately, most polls do not delve deep enough into the issues to uncover precisely what the perceived problems are that need addressing, but it can safely be assumed that Wisconsinites want a great education for their kids and a great economy.

When it comes to education, Wisconsinites rightly want our kids to get the best possible education at a cost that we can afford. In the most recent round of test results released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, less than half of students in third grade through eighth grade are proficient or better in English/language arts or math, and the average composite ACT score for 11th graders was 19.8. These statistics have been consistent for the past several years.

Interpreting test results always depends on one’s perspective, but the general perception is that Wisconsin’s education establishment can do a better job of educating our kids than that. Unfortunately, we have allowed politicians of both parties to fall into the lazy rhetorical position of substituting spending with accomplishments. Spending more money on education does not lead to better outcomes. If that were the case, then we would see it in the test results when we spend more. In fact, the kids who attend choice schools, which generally spend less per student than public schools, achieved higher test scores on average than the kids who attend public schools.

Instead of focusing on how much more we can spend on education, our politicians should advance policies designed to actually improve education. For example, if we look around the world at other educational systems that have better outcomes, they offer some insight into how to do things differently. In some countries, the curriculum is narrower, but deeper. The schools put all of their efforts into ensuring that the students have a deep understanding of core subjects instead of spending time on a more “wellrounded” education. Other school systems have also moved to all-year school to maintain momentum throughout the year. Still others have been aggressive in making sure that disruptive students are removed from the classroom to ensure a quality learning environment for the other students.

In short, in seeking policy prescriptions to improve education, Wisconsin’s politicians should be advancing actual data-driven ideas. Throwing more money into the same education machine expecting different results is lunacy.

When it comes to the economy, there is no dispute that it is booming in Wisconsin. Unemployment is hovering at a record low. Wages are increasing. Wisconsin’s historic economic engines, like manufacturing and agriculture, are strengthening again. Meanwhile, Wisconsin is attracting and growing new economic pillars like high-tech manufacturing and biotech. The biggest problem Wisconsin has right now is that there are more jobs than qualified people to fill them.

Economies are naturally complex and the reasons for the current boom are myriad. The policies and attitude of Wisconsin’s state government over the past few years can certainly claim some credit. Lower taxes, state agencies that strive to work with businesses, regulatory reforms, stable state finances, and a quality transportation infrastructure have all created an environment in which businesses can succeed.

When it comes to the economy, as with most things, the best government is the least government. As the state’s politicians enter the new year, they must not act to disrupt the economic policies that are working by introducing higher taxes, more regulations, or fostering an adversarial relationship with businesses. Instead, they should focus on the economic issues that need addressing, like attracting more workers to move to Wisconsin.

Most of all, as Wisconsin’s freshly elected politicians settle into their jobs, they must remember that not every problem requires a government solution. Most of the time, the best solution is for government to get out of the way.

Governing is harder with diverse opinions

My column is in the Washington County Daily News today. First, go vote. Second, tomorrow we have to start governing again. Here’s a taste.

When it comes to the economy, as with most things, the best government is the least government. As the state’s politicians enter the new year, they must not act to disrupt the economic policies that are working by introducing higher taxes, more regulations, or fostering an adversarial relationship with businesses. Instead, they should focus on the economic issues that need addressing, like attracting more workers to move to Wisconsin.

Most of all, as Wisconsin’s freshly elected politicians settle into their jobs, they must remember that not every problem requires a government solution. Most of the time, the best solution is for government to get out of the way.

Keep Wisconsin moving forward

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

Early voting has been underway in Wisconsin for several weeks, but the end of the election season is rapidly approaching. Nov. 6 is the final day to vote. As a free people, we have the hardearned right to set the course of our public affairs for years to come. We must choose wisely.

There are many important choices on the ballot, but the three at the top of the ballot are paramount for the future of our state. Brad Schimel is asking for a second term as Wisconsin’s attorney general and he has earned it.

In his first term, Schimel has launched programs to support victims of domestic abuse and violent crime, fought the opioid abuse epidemic, supported local law enforcement, fixed the rape kit backlog that he inherited and much more. Schimel has led the Department of Justice as it should be run — as a no nonsense, law and order shop.

This stands in stark contrast to what his opponent, Josh Kaul, wants to do with the office. Kaul is part of the massive liberal effort, spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to elect rabid activists as attorneys general across the nation. Their objective is to use the power of the office of attorney general to wage liberal havoc against their enemies. For the sake of law and order, Wisconsin must reelect Attorney General Brad Schimel.

State Sen. Leah Vukmir is challenging U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. This race is a contrast in work ethic as well as ideology. Baldwin is completing her first term and one struggles to come up with a single accomplishment to her name. Backbenching inaction has been the hallmark of Baldwin’s entire political career. In almost six years as Wisconsin’s junior senator, the only thing that is remarkable about Baldwin’s tenure has been that she is a tremendously reliable vote for the Democratic leaders and every lefty cause they dreamt up.

During the exact same time, one could find Vukmir at the center of every major reform enacted in Wisconsin. Vukmir was at the center of Act 10, advancing school choice, reforming welfare, lowering taxes, health care reform, expanding civil rights and has been instrumental in advancing the reforms that have led to an economic renaissance in our state. Wisconsin is dramatically better off than it was when Vukmir first stepped into the state Legislature. We need a senator like Vukmir who will actually work for Wisconsin’s interests in Washington.

Finally, Gov. Scott Walker is asking Wisconsin for a third and final term as our governor. He has certainly earned it. Perhaps the easiest way to measure Walker’s tenure is by asking the old question, “are you better off ?” By virtually every measurement, the answer is, “yes.”

When Walker first assumed office, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was 8 percent. Now it is less than 3 percent for the eighth month in a row. Before Walker became governor, businesses were fleeing Wisconsin. Now businesses like Foxconn are clamoring to set up shop in our state. Before Walker, taxes were going up every year at almost every level with no end in sight. Now Wisconsinites have enjoyed a decrease in the tax burden and the elimination of the state property tax.

Before Walker, tuition at the state’s universities were going up faster than inflation. Now Walker has frozen tuition at UW schools and students can more easily afford a higher education. Before Walker, the state was running a deficit in the billions of dollars. Now the state regularly runs a small surplus that has been used to give money back to taxpayers or bolster the state’s rainy day fund.

Before Walker became our governor, the DNR was feared by businesses, homeowners and conservationists alike. Now the DNR works to help people comply with environmental regulations. Before Walker, our civil rights to keep and bear arms were unreasonably restricted. Now Wisconsinites enjoy the liberties to which we are entitled. Before Walker, some of Wisconsin’s workers were forced to be members of a union if they wanted to work. Now every Wisconsin worker enjoys the right to freely associate.

By virtually every measurement — economic, civil rights, taxes, regulatory climate, etc. — Wisconsin is much better off than it was before Walker took office. Unless you want to see all of our progress come to a screeching halt, vote for Walker.

Walker, Vukmir and Schimel have all helped make Wisconsin a great place to live and work. They deserve our votes. More importantly, we deserve to have them continue to work on our behalf.

Keep Wisconsin moving forward

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here’s the thrust:

Walker, Vukmir and Schimel have all helped make Wisconsin a great place to live and work. They deserve our votes. More importantly, we deserve to have them continue to work on our behalf.