Legislative Heavy Lifting Doesn’t End Here

Wisconsin was gifted with many nice gifts, but 2016 is the time to sweep away leftover junk

January 4, 2015

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

When we look back at 2015 we have to give it an incomplete grade. I think we can all be forgiven if Christmas snuck up on us and the gift wrapping and shopping wasn’t finished. Then again, what else can we expect from a year when delay in passing the budget meant delaying a presidential campaign announcement by Governor Scott Walker?

There were accomplishments. Wisconsin passed Right to Work legislation. The state Food Share program was reformed; safeguards were added to reduce fraud and 4,500 recipients found work in the first three months. Property taxes are down, and so is unemployment. The state even reformed the John Doe law, saving the criminal investigation process for the types of crimes which need it rather than allowing rogue prosecutors to use the law to punish political opponents.

But even looking at the legislature’s accomplishments, they left so much undone. Even the reform of Government Accountability Board, splitting the agency in two and making the new elections board a bipartisan agency, won’t officially occur until June. There is still plenty of time for Judge Gerald Nichol and Executive Director Kevin Kennedy to engage in politically pernicious activities.

The legislature reformed the state’s prevailing wage law that required public works projects above a certain dollar amount to pay workers a wage defined by a formula that was supposedly comparable to union wages. However, while the state eliminated the prevailing wage requirement for local governments (villages, towns, cities, school districts, or sewerage districts), state construction projects are still subject to the law. The law also will not take effect until 2017, so even if a project is bid in 2016 for 2017 the local unit of government will still have to comply with the existing prevailing wage law.

We pried the bill repealing the minimum markup law out of state Senator Mary Lazich’s file cabinet where it was strategically placed, but the bill sits in committee with no public hearing scheduled. Worse, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is ignoring a recent poll on the proposed repeal and has announced that there is not enough popular support to pass the bill in the Assembly. Not only is the repeal of the minimum markup law unfinished business from 2015, it threatens to remain unfinished in 2016 despite the middle-class friendliness of the bill, especially when consumers purchase fuel for their automobiles.

Also waiting on action by the state Senate is civil service reform. The state assembly passed its version of the reform, including a provision that would eliminate the check box asking if an applicant has been convicted of a felony. The state Senate version keeps the check box.

The legislature also punted on fixing the transportation trust fund, choosing not to borrow as much as the governor requested while also not setting priorities for future projects. Instead, the state’s long term transportation funding remains a muddle unlikely to be resolved in 2016, either. However, we may see the legislature consider allowing counties to raise sales taxes to pay for local road work, a move in the wrong direction.

Supporters of parents’ rights to choose the best schools for their children are also waiting. School choice for most of the state is limited to 1% of a school district’s prior year enrollment. That number will slowly increase by an additional 1% every year beginning in 2017. After the cap reaches 10%, then the enrollment caps will finally be lifted. Until then, if there are more applicants than the cap allows, parents will place their child in a lottery.

Unfortunately, school choice participation is still limited to low income families, or those earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, even though it actually costs less to educate a child in a choice school. We’re still not living up to the principle that tax money should be spent on the education of the child, not the maintenance of school district budgets.

Finally, the state tax code is still in need of an overhaul. It may shock some readers to learn that the flat income tax rate in Illinois is actually lower than the income tax rates in the higher brackets in Wisconsin. The legislature was successful in reducing the number of taxpayers hit by the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) from 30,000 to 2,000 but not in eliminating the tax entirely. They also reduced the marriage penalty but did not eliminate it. We’re still a high tax state mostly because we still spend too much.

Unfortunately, we’re headed into an election year that will mean little time spent in Madison by the legislators to complete these items. Instead, legislators will be back in their districts much of the year touting their accomplishments and running for re-election. While they have made significant progress in reforming Wisconsin government, their constituents need to remind them there is still plenty more to do.