Can Wisconsin’s State Senate Republicans learn from the past?

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

The announcement by a pair of Republican senators of an alternative budget plan for education spending should send shivers down the spines of their colleagues. The plan being touted by Senator Mike Ellis and Senator Luther Olsen would raise education spending by $382 million. That’s more than the $343 million tax cut proposed by Governor Scott Walker.

Public school spending would increase $150 more per student in each of the next two years. Ellis and Olsen would take $100 million from elsewhere in the budget and would allow local property taxes to go up $153 million.

So what Ellis and Olsen are proposing is not only a local tax increase but a tax shift from the state level to local property taxpayers. Yet these same two senators claim to be concerned about the effect of school choice on local property taxpayers even though school choice has proven to be an educational bargain for the state.

This is beyond hypocritical. This is duplicitous.

They did get praise from the leftwing Shepherd Express (formerly the Crazy Shepherd) in Milwaukee for their plan. I’m sure that will play well in their districts.

But for the rest of the state senate, there has to be a sense of déjà vu. In 2006, several Senate Republicans voted against a state constitutional amendment to limit state spending. State Senator Mary Lazich even issued a press release with a poem questioning the proposal early in the debate.

Certainly no small coincidence, Republicans lost control of the state senate later that year. In a sign of things to come, State Representative Ann Nischke lost a mayoral election in the heart of Republican territory, Waukesha, because the Democrat Larry Nelson attacked Madison Republicans for their spending and support for taxes.

Two years later, Republicans lost control of the state assembly and the Democrats were in complete control of Madison. If political parties don’t live up to the expectations of the taxpayers, the taxpayers will hold them accountable.

It took the Tea Party movement to re-energize the Republican Party by re-emphasizing smaller government and less taxes. State Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus took to the road to attend the Tea Party rallies, explaining that he understood the mistrust of the activists of the Republican Party and he would challenge the crowds to hold them accountable.

The re-energized party swept the state in 2010, electing Scott Walker as governor and winning back the senate and the assembly. Walker cut state spending and froze local spending while giving local governments the means to control costs with Act 10. As a result, the median property owner even saw a slight reduction in their property taxes.

As a result of the effectiveness of his policies, Walker was able to fend off the recall attempt last year and win by an even bigger margin than he did in 2010.

Now Ellis and Olsen, who were both senators the last couple of times Republicans lost the majority in the senate, want to raise local property taxes. They want to undo the work that has been done by the governor to show that state services can be maintained without raising taxes. In the process, they would render the proposed income tax cut meaningless, and actually hurt the tax reduction cause because of the perceived shift of the tax burden from the state level to the local level.

The voters held legislative Republicans responsible the last time they failed to control taxes and spending. They will hold legislative Republicans accountable again.

Instead of trying to raise local property taxes, Ellis and Olsen should be campaigning for more school districts to go for the savings that can be had from Act 10. When the governor announced last year that the state had save $1 billion as a result of Act 10, if the rest of the school districts pursued the available savings in health care costs spending would have been reduced another $100 million.

In addition, the Friedman Foundation reported that, “Wisconsin’s public schools spent an extra $330 million in 2009 thanks to bloated administrative costs,” as the MacIver Institute reported.

The two senators could also get onboard with the expansion of private school choice. The private school state vouchers would only go up to $6,442 to $7,050 for K-8 schools and $7,856 for high schools, the first increase since 2009-10, while expanding educational choice to nine more school districts. That’s a substantial savings to the taxpayer who spends on average $11,300 per student statewide.

Fighting for real savings in the educational budget may not get Senator Ellis and Senator Olsen favorable notice in the Shepherd Express, but it does meet the mandate given to senate Republicans in 2010 and 2012. If they betray that mandate, the voters can change the majority party in 2014.