Taxpayers Suffer Memorable Weekend

You probably think this was a great Memorial Day Weekend.  After all, the weather was warm, the Brewers ended the weekend in first place and dang those brats from the grill tasted good.   More importantly, we were reminded once again of the sacrifices some men and women have made to make America great and to keep her free.  But unfortunately, while you were enjoying baseball, attending Memorial Day parades and doing a little yard work, the Joint Finance Committee was working hard to make this the worst weekend ever.

You wouldn’t have guessed that was the case last Thursday, when in a dramatic press conference, Governor Doyle announced that “we must make deep cuts to state government spending” to close a ballooning state deficit.  That makes sense.  The Governor and legislative leaders promised that they would protect the middle class in crafting a new balanced budget.  Thank goodness.  Indeed, they said the crisis was so great that the Joint Finance Committee would actually work on Memorial Day Weekend to close the budget gap.  They must be serious!  The message they were sending was the people should go ahead and enjoy the unofficial start of summer while dedicated public servants work to straighten out Wisconsin’s messed up finances and protect your family.

So, how did the Joint Finance Committee do while you were enjoying the weekend?

Let’s see.  They raised taxes and fees.  They increased spending in this budget a whole bunch of times.  How can a state with the worst structural deficit in the nation increase spending in any area?  They voted to increase spending in the next budget even more.  They even voted to undo a spending cut they had previously agreed to adopt.

They promised they would protect the middle class – but they voted to raise tuition for middle class families while giving illegal aliens a tuition break.  They voted to increase costs for local governments by tens of millions of dollars so that these governments will be forced to raise property taxes even more.

When they got around to “cutting spending”  it was usually either a reduction in a previously proposed increase or it was a reduction in one area so they could pay for spending in another area.

While the Governor talked about the need to lay off state employees, the committee actually voted to give other state employees additional benefits!  While private sector employees are losing benefits, the committee decided that some state employees should get more.

In the middle of a recession, when Wisconsin businesses are struggling to reduce their costs so they can remain competitive, the committee voted to increase those costs again and again.  They increased the use of the prevailing wage laws on government projects and they helped some private sector employees who provide services to state and local governments get unionized.  They voted to increase the insurance costs for private businesses more than once.  The result will be more business closings, greater unemployment and higher property taxes.

All in all, this was the worst weekend Wisconsin’s taxpayers have seen in a long time.  Here is a blow by blow account by our reporter in the street, Joe Taxpayer:

Friday — Omnibus motion to re-visit spending decisions made by the Finance Committee earlier in the budget process

The committee is off to a fast start this morning.  Well, not actually morning – it is nearly 1 o’clock before they sit down at the table.  What do you think is going on behind the scenes that they forget what time it is?  No matter, we are going to roll up our sleeves, sharpen our pencils, and find a way to fix this additional $1.6 billion dollar deficit.  $6.6 billion if you are a stickler for facts or accounting.  They start with an omnibus motion to revisit some of the spending increases they already passed. Their logic is now that we know we are $1.6 billion more in the hole, we need to “modify” some of our spending decisions.  I guess we will all just ignore the fact that these spending increases were passed when we were only $5 BILLION IN THE HOLE.  Remember, first rule in politics, you can ignore facts if you create your own logic.  Off we go…

– $138,000.00 in savings over two years from the Medigap Helpline.  Oh wait, the “savings” is lapsed into the general fund for other spending.  Not a cut.

– $3 million in savings from the increased spending on the film production tax credit was going to receive.  Hold it.  That is a reduction in the proposed increase, not a cut.

– $7 million from the increase to the Wisconsin Higher Education Grant earmarked for the UW.  Again, not a cut.  Shoot.  Where was it again that they made all these cuts???

– $217,400.00 savings over two years from the Marquette Dental School and four other non-profit health care providers.  Here we go, now we are making some progress.  Wait a second, $218,000.00?  I thought the new Doyle deficit hole was $1.6 BILLION?  Maybe they forgot to put an extra couple of zeroes on the 218?  Nope.  It says $218,000.00.  Well, according to my math, that is .014% of the $1.6 billion we need to make up.  We have a ways to go.

– $2 million in savings from the unallocated vital records fee.  Again, the “savings” is lapsed to the general fund for other spending.  Not a cut.  I could swear Governor Doyle said, “we must make deep cuts to state government spending”  last week when he announced his plan to solve the growing budget deficit.

– $560,000.00 in savings from the Community Health Services Grants and AIDS Support Network.  The money is lapsed to the general fund.  How does that get us to $1.6 billion?

– $900,600.00 in savings over two years from the Poison Control Program, Foster Care Public Information Program, Maternal and Child Health Program and the Life Care Grants Program.  Are these cuts or more lapses?  I guess we will count them as cuts.  So if we add this $900,600.00 “cut” to the $217,400.00 health care cut mentioned above, we get to $1.12 million in cuts or .07% of the $1.6 billion dollar Doyle deficit that we need to fix.  We still have a long way to go.

Friday — Approved $25,000.00 for a feasibility study

Looks like I spoke too fast.  With a $6 billion dollar deficit staring us in the face, do we have the money, even if it is only $25,000, to spend on a study?  Sen. Decker said it last week, “every state program will need to squeeze every nickel out of every dollar to make it through this budget crisis without destroying the safety net that many Wisconsin families will need in the coming months.”  I guess the Senators on the committee didn’t read his press release.  Even if the feasibility study shows we need a new state facility in Kenosha County (Gee, what are chances the government study says we need more government), we have no money to build it (see earlier item about a $6.6 BILLION DOLLAR STATE BUDGET DEFICIT)!

Friday — Cut funding to Counties for District Attorneys

The committee votes with Governor Doyle to cut $1.3 million in general tax revenue funding for district attorneys.  Finally, a cut!  Wait, if the Counties decide to pay for these District Attorneys with local property tax dollars, that just drives my property taxes higher.  At least the Finance Committee can say “we didn’t raise your property taxes, your County Board did.”  Still, it counts as a “state cut.”  With this crew, this might be the best we get.

Friday — Approved 50 new state-funded positions for indigent legal defense

Because the current fiscal situation is so dire, the committee votes to delay starting these positions until 2011.  Now there is some common sense.  Good old fashioned credit card spending.  Buy now, pay later.  Will only cost us $4.4 million next budget.  We don’t have to worry about that for another 2 whole years.  That is an eternity in politics.

Friday — Increased state spending on health insurance and retirement benefits by expanding eligibility to domestic partners of state employees

According to the non-partisan Fiscal Bureau, this motion will INCREASE state spending, when fully implemented, by $11 – $16 million dollars.  This doesn’t make sense.  Senator Miller and Rep. Pocan stood shoulder to shoulder with Gov. Doyle on Thursday while he told the press with a straight face that this is the first state budget in over 1,000 years — okay, the state hasn’t been around quite that long — to spend less gpr (the precious general purpose revenue) than the previous budget.  How can that be if the committee continues to vote to increase spending?  Earlier this spring, the MacIver Institute made public polling that showed 64% of Wisconsinites are opposed to this new benefit in these tough economic times.  I’m sure the committee members remember and care about what their constituents think about this issue.  Any self-serving politician would, correct?  Instead of increasing our health care costs, shouldn’t the state be looking for ways to save taxpayer dollars by asking state employees to pick up a greater share of their cadillac health insurance plans or switch to a more modestly-priced plan?

Friday — The committee voted unanimously to support Gov. Doyle’s $100 million base-budget cut to the UW and his 1% across the board cut to other UW appropriations

Finally, some spending cuts.  A $100 million cut in general purpose revenue is 6.25% of what we need to fix the state’s $1.6 billion problem.  But wait, this is not a recently created budget motion to deal with the estimates that the deficit had grown by $1.6 billion this year.  No, this motion was created way back when the old Doyle deficit stood at “only” $5 billion dollars?  Gee, remember the good old days?  So this cut actually amounts to only 1.5 % of the full Doyle $6.6 billion deficit.  In addition to the $100 million reduction in the UW System’s GPR general program operations appropriation, the committee voted with the Governor to reduce most of the UW System’s non-federal appropriations by 1%.  Most non-federal appropriations, not all?  Fiscal crisis must not be that bad if we can exempt some programs.   According to UW System staff, undergraduate tuition could increase by 5.5% in each year of the 2009-11 biennium to deal with this cut.  I wonder if this is what Gov. Doyle was referring to when he said, “We have made responsible choices, ones that protect the middle class.”  I bet parents with a child at the UW might wonder which middle class Gov. Doyle is protecting.  If the UW is jacking tuition over 10% over the next two years to make up for the lost state support, is that really a reduction in state spending or is it just a shift  of the cost to students and their parents?

Friday — The committee voted to support Gov. Doyle’s new money for the WI Institute for Discovery

Gov. Doyle proposed and Joint Finance agreed to spend $8.2 million in general tax revenues on a new program to fund the WI Institute for Discovery (WID).  Not sure how we continue to create new government programs at a time when we are not only flat broke but up to our eyeballs in debt?  These new positions at the Institute aren’t exactly “entry level” jobs, either.  Seven new faculty members will be hired at the WID in 2009-2010, with average salary and benefits packages of $164,000.00 each.  And don’t forget the 14 “support” staff that the faculty just couldn’t live or work without.  Salary and benefits for each of these support staff will average over $128,000.00.  Where does a taxpayer sign up for a job like that?

Friday — Increased state spending to support the Wisconsin Genomics Initiative within the UW System

The committee votes with Governor Doyle to spend $2 million of general purpose revenues on a new appropriation for the Wisconsin Genomics Initiative.  Did we miss the media reports of a new fiscal estimate that shows the state with a surplus?  We must have.  Responsible politicians would never spend tax dollars on a new program during a time of deficit.  Right?

Friday — Adopted the Governor’s recommendation to start a new School of Public Health and a new School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee

While no new state funds were appropriated for these schools, one still must wonder why, with a deficit of $6.6 billion dollars, is it a good idea to push off new commitments until the next budget using the state’s credit card?  Is that responsible budgeting?

Friday — Allowed undocumented students to pay resident tuition

Holy cow, look at the time.  Almost time to call it a day.  Everyone wants to get to the fish fry.  But before they go, the Joint Finance Committee voted once again to expand state spending in a time of financial crisis with a new benefit for undocumented students.  They worked all the way to 5 o’clock (actually 4:30) and then decided they wanted to come back on Saturday bright and early to make progress on the deficit.

Saturday — Department of Justice

Maybe the members just needed a good night’s sleep and since it is noon before we start, I’m sure we will make some real progress on closing the $6.6 billion dollar deficit today.  Here we go.  Oops, right out of the box the Committee votes to overturn a spending cut.  A $3,000.00 cut over two years to gaming law enforcement was apparently too much for members to stomach.  $3,000?  Really?  This does not bode well for the rest of the day…

Saturday – Tripled the nonprofit fee for background checks

Next, the committee agrees with Governor Doyle to triple the fee for background checks.   That doesn’t sound like belt-tightening.  Oh but, in this economy, non-profits are flush with cash.  They can just take that added cost from programming that serves the poor or some other “nonessential” pot of money.  Whew.  I’m exhausted. The committee has been working for over an hour and needs a break.  I wonder if any of them has a wet bar in their office that I can belly up to?

Saturday – Mandated wage levels for public and private construction projects

And we’re back.  Now we are going to make some real progress.  I can feel it.  Prevailing wage?  What’s that?  State government artificially sets how much workers should get paid on a construction project?  How will that help keep costs down?  And this applies to county and local government projects?  Well good.  We can’t trust duly elected local officials to negotiate the price of their own projects.

Saturday — Doubled the garbage tax

Now comes DNR air, waste and contaminated land.  Doesn’t sound like an area with a lot of savings but given the direction the committee has been going the last twenty four hours, maybe the best we can hope for is to tread water.  Guess not.  Sen. Miller forwards a motion that doubles the garbage tax from $5.90 per ton to $13.00 per ton.  Does that make us the highest in the nation?  The lobbyists break out in a chant of “We’re #1!  We’re #1!”  The chair quickly gavels them back into obedience, I mean silence.  According to the Fiscal Bureau, the new fee will cost municipalities $63 million.  I’m sure Sen. Miller will help the locals out with more state aid to keep them whole.  He doesn’t?  Well, I’m sure he will watch out for the “little guy,” me the taxpayer, by stopping the municipalities from turning right around and passing this higher garbage tax onto my property tax bill, right?  No? Will he at least ask the municipalities in a very stern voice, his “father knows best” voice, not to stick it to me with a higher garbage tax?  Please?  Which office had the bar?

Saturday — Collective bargaining for home care providers

Not sure how this helps to get the state out of the $6.6 billion dollar hole, but, what the heck, the committee is on a roll.  My father always told me not to confuse motion with progress.  But again, my father never watched this group at work.

Saturday — Fines for failure to dispense contraceptive drugs

I can see the headline in their legislative newsletter now, “I solved the state’s $6.6 billion dollar deficit by…fining pharmacists who object to dispensing birth control $2,500.00.”  You would think this would be the one budget we would not have the Pro-life/Pro-choice fight we normally see.  But you would be wrong.

Saturday — End of voting

Man, oh man, I’m starting to feel a little light-headed.  I think it is all this progress the committee is making.  Or I need another belt.  It’s nearly 7 o’clock and the committee is winding down.  They pass some lengthy motions on health insurance on their way out the door, but I’m in no condition to think right now.  Neither is half the committee.  No worry, that is exactly what you want, legislators tweaking insurance policy for the state on the fly, Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend.  Don’t they have a parade to go to?  Lucky for us, the committee will get right back at it on Tuesday.

By Brett Healy
A MacIver Perspective