Under a perfect government, citizens would be engaged, knowledgeable, and active. Citizens would be involved in local decisions regarding taxation, public services, and criminal ordinances. The closer government was to the individual, the more active they would be in its affairs.
News flash: Our government ain’t perfect. People of Wisconsin are busy taking their kids to soccer practice. They hold down jobs where they work long hours and some hoochie that works half as hard as them is trying to get them fired. They sit up in freezing tree stands in the woods for days, to shoot anything that moves for sport. They spend every waking hour sorting though their CD collection, to find just the right song to sing when they reach the finale of “American Idol.” Okay, that last one is just me.
Any economist will tell you that being a politically active voter takes a lot of time, and time is a “cost.” Most people’s lives hum along nicely, and the cost of being politically aware isn’t worth the benefit. Being part of a political party reduces these costs significantly – rather than researching candidates’ positions and voting records, people can generally tell whether they line up with the candidate on most issues based on party affiliation. Beyond that, few citizens pay the cost it takes to be politically knowledgeable, because they have family, work, and recreational duties that offer them more immediate benefit. Any good campaign’s first job should be to reduce the cost of information about both candidates – positive information should be disseminated about your candidate, and negative information about your opponent. Voters should be contacted as often as possible, thus reducing the cost to voters of researching candidates.
The most popular Assembly members can be identified by maybe 15% of their constituents. State senators, maybe a little more. People think Russ Feingold and Jim Doyle have the same job. A minority of people know the difference between state and federal governments, and laws and issues intertwine between the two. Citizens think the state government sets and collects property taxes. Nearly half the people of the state haven’t even considered voting.
With citizens tuning out government, big government lobbyists see an opening. They know they can lobby for higher taxes, more spending, and pet projects while the public is laying on the couch, motionless, for hours at time, sucking down pork rinds and watching naked women eat bugs on “Fear Factor.” Okay, me again.
When bills come before the Legislature to spend money, lobbyists line up at public hearings to testify. They haul in the elderly to support more Medicare funding, they haul in the disabled to support more funding for human services, and they take children out of school to come to the Capitol to support education funding (I am 100% for private school vouchers, but proponents also take part in this despicable act.)
The one group you will not see testifying at any hearing is the group that pays for all these programs – the taxpayers. Taxpayers are just regular folks, and don’t have any lobbyist to call them to warn them to come to hearings. Even if they did, they would have to make complicated long-term arguments about how services can better be provided by the private sector, when opponents of tax breaks have been coached in the language of making “investments,” and how “programs pay for themselves.” The action that provides the most immediate benefit, usually in the form of more spending, is generally the one that gets the most attention. Again, information costs to your average taxpayer are usually too high to get involved, and taxpayers that do pay attention are too thrifty. Generally, it wouldn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money on an expensive lobbyist to save you a few bucks on your income or property taxes.
Throw in a system that is rigged against the taxpayer, and you find out why Wisconsin is perpetually in the top ten taxed states. Sixty percent of the state budget goes back to local governments in the form of aid, presumably to hold down property taxes. So when the state needs to cut spending, if they cut aid to local governments, the “Road Salt Mafia” of local officials will threaten a property tax hike to make up the lost revenue (Madison seems to have ceded control of the city council to a roving gang of 60 year old men with gray ponytails and sweatbands). This leaves only 40% of the state budget to absorb all the cuts, which is difficult to do when the state faces two and three billion dollar deficits, as it has in the last two budgets. If a taxpayer complains to the locals about high property taxes, they hear that the state isn’t giving the locals enough money, so it’s the state’s fault. If the same taxpayer complains to the state about high property taxes, they hear that local governments set property tax rates, so it’s the local governments’ fault. In the end, you get no accountability, a lot of finger pointing, and higher property taxes.
Given this system, who is looking out for the taxpayer? It has to be our state legislators, which brings us to the property tax freeze issue. When the state is in a situation where they slow the increase in growth to local governments (school districts are 45% of all the state’s general expenditures), and those governments expect more, the state has to step in and prevent local governments from shifting the burden to property taxpayers. In order to reduce information costs to taxpayers, the onus is on legislators to serve as their lobbyist, to give them the best government they can afford.
Governor Doyle’s budget used tricks and gimmicks to send an additional $850 million to school districts. Legislative Republicans crafted a plan that sent $458 million in additional funds to those school districts. If the amount that these school districts get to spend per pupil were to remain at current law, school districts would merely make that $400 million difference up in the form of higher property taxes. That’s why Republicans had to hold down the per pupil increase, to avoid this shift. In fact, if Doyle vetoes the lower per pupil spending amounts and doesn’t fill in any additional state revenue, this shift will occur, as it did in the previous budget.
The economic downturn that precipitated cuts in the state budget were brought on by people losing their jobs, making less money, and spending less on goods and services. Raising taxes on these very people is not the way to turn our state’s economy and does not address the state’s overspending addiction.
In the long term, Wisconsin needs to move towards a system that promotes local accountability and local involvement. The government that raises the dollar should be the government that spends the dollar. Citizens need to be able to walk in, talk to their local representatives, and really make a difference in how they are governed, rather than having to navigate a dizzying maze of bureaucracy. The state should phase in a plan to wean local governments off state income tax money, and lower income tax rates at the state level. Local governments should then be given the ability to raise additional funds if their constituents see fit. The state shouldn’t be in a position where they have to bail out both local governments and local taxpayers when things go bad.
Moving taxation decisions to local governments will make city, town, and village meetings more vibrant and involved. In the meantime, the state should limit funding shifts to property taxes via a freeze. Political participation needs to be worth the cost, once again.
I now must go sit on my ass and watch “The Real Gilligan’s Island.” Break out the pork rinds.