Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Budget (page 2 of 4)

Look Out for Pterodactyls: Here Come the Democrats

I’ve posted about this before, but this most recent example just clarifies the blatant hypocrisy from both lawmakers and the teachers’ union.

Last week, Governor Doyle announced he would consider “cuts” to K-12 education as a way of making up the additional $1.6 billion deficit the state has recently identified.  (A “cut” simply means “not giving teachers as much money as they want,” even though total spending will continue to increase.)

Of course, when the state aid increase to school districts is scaled back, districts will simply raise property taxes to make up the difference.  Apparently, Democratic lawmakers are taking steps to cap these tax increases.  From last week’s Wispolitics Report:

Without changes to the revenue limits, the cuts to state aid that Doyle and lawmakers are considering could be backfilled with property taxes to make up most of the difference.  

But sources familiar with talks going on between the administration, legislators and school officials said revenue limits on school districts could be tightened to limit the impact on property taxpayers, or there could be a reduction in the per pupil adjustment.

Perhaps you remember such a scheme to hold down property taxes in the face of smaller increases in state aid.  Legislative Republicans proposed similar plans for eight years running – with Governor Jim Doyle vetoing all of the property tax freeze proposals that got to his desk.

In fact, in 2003, WEAC reacted to a proposal similar to the one being proposed by Democrats now by saying it would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age.”  In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

It appears Doyle and legislative Democrats have been doing a little shopping at Menard’s, as they now appear willing to both wield a meat axe and aim a shotgun at our children.  The budget Jauch and Decker will end up voting for might end up being bloodier than the entire “Friday the 13th” movie franchise.

Perhaps the most vocal critic of a plan to cap property taxes was Governor Jim Doyle, who in his 2003 budget veto message, said:

The Republicans in the Legislature had a different approach. Instead of focusing on the problems with the state government’s budget – problems they played a key role in creating over the last decade – they tore a page out of the discredited playbook of the last Governor and pointed their fingers at the leaders of our local communities and schools. They tried to distract attention from their unfair cuts and sham budgeting by resorting to political gimmicks and slogans.

The arguments against their levy limits are numerous, but at the heart is a very basic Wisconsin value: We in Wisconsin have believed for more than 150 years that local communities know best the needs of their citizens.


That value – trusting our communities to make wise decisions – has served us well in education. It has given us schools that are the envy of the nation. Our children consistently perform at the top of national tests. They are our future. In order for Wisconsin to prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy, our children must have the very best education available to them. Our teachers work very hard to deliver that education, often under extremely difficult circumstances. Making children and teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess is irresponsible and inconsistent with Wisconsin’s values.

Is Doyle going to issue a press release condemning his own plan making “children an teachers the victims of the state’s fiscal mess?”  Or does he save that rhetoric for Republicans when they hold one or more of the houses of the Legislature?  Amazing how things change when one party runs everything and you don’t have a reliable bogeyman on which to blame everything.

I can’t wait to hear all the outrage from the teachers’ union when this new plan goes into effect.  More likely, we’ll hear praise heaped upon our lawmakers for “making the tough choices” and showing “fiscal discipline.”

Of course, these aid “cuts” wouldn’t be necessary if the state merely required government employees to kick in a little to their own retirement accounts.

A Tale of Two Economies

Earlier this week, I linked to a column by Steve Malanga that detailed the history of the U.S. government’s attempts to expand homeownership to those who may not be ready to afford it.

Today, Malanga is back with an outstanding article in the Wall Street Journal that recaps the growth in union influence within government:

Call it a tale of two economies. Private-sector workers — unionized and nonunion alike — can largely see that without compromises they may be forced to join unemployment lines. Not so in the public sector.

Government unions used their influence this winter in Washington to ensure that a healthy chunk of the federal stimulus package was sent to states and cities to preserve public jobs. Now they are fighting tenacious and largely successful local battles to safeguard salaries and benefits. Their gains, of course, can only come at the expense of taxpayers, which is one reason why states and cities are approving tens of billions of dollars in tax increases.


The results of such efforts are evident in the rich rewards that public-sector employees now enjoy. A study in 2005 by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute estimated that the average public-sector worker earned 46% more in salary and benefits than comparable private-sector workers. The gap has only continued to grow. For example, state and local worker pay and benefits rose 3.1% in the last year, compared to 1.9% in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But the real power of the public sector is showing through in this economic crisis. Some five million private-sector workers have lost their jobs in the last year alone, and their unemployment rate is above 9% according to the BLS. By contrast, public-sector employment has grown in virtually every month of the recession, and the jobless rate for government workers is a mere 2.8%. For anyone who thinks such low unemployment numbers are good news, remember that the bulging public sector must be paid for with revenues that most governments don’t currently have. This is one reason for a spate of state and local tax increases, such as $5 billion in tax increases New York state passed in April, and $12 billion in tax increases California’s legislature agreed to in February that will only become law if voters pass a series of ballot initiatives next week.

The whole article is certainly worth the read.

A Quick Dose of Fred Risser Logic

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, relating to Governor Doyle’s announcement of state employee cuts and furloughs:

Risser said it’s unfair to require “dedicated and loyal” state workers to take unpaid furloughs.

He said he wants to consider other options, even tax increases, saying state workers aren’t responsible for the recession that caused tax collections to fall by 7.3% over the past 10 months. That drop meant state government collected about $790 million less in general-fund taxes over that period this year than in the previous year.

Translation: “Dedicated and loyal” state workers shouldn’t be punished for a recession for which they are not responsible, but everyone who pays taxes should be.  (That would be you “undedicated and disloyal” private sector employees, 115,000 of whom lost their jobs in the last year – while government employees actually grew by 5,700.)  

Does Senator Risser think taxpayers are responsible for the recession, since he wants to punish them for it?

A Lovely Day for a Tea Party

Today was tax day – the day everyone rushes to the post office to file their returns.  That is, unless they work for the Obama administration and are in charge of actually spending that money.  They can get to it whenever they feel like it.

The Lord smiled on the Tea Party held in Madison today, as thousands of people showed up from all over the state to fight higher taxes.  (The Lord hasn’t specifically expressed a preference for lower taxes, although he was irked that one time Jesus got a ticket from the DNR for turning bread into fish.)  Warmth greeted 4,000 people who flooded the Capitol’s East Wing sidewalk to demonstrate against taxes, spending, and pretty much any gripe they have with any aspect of the current government.  Today was the day of airing grievances publicly – if you don’t like taxes, you were there with signs.  If you don’t like gun control, you were there with signs.  If you think the voting process on American Idol is rigged, you were there with signs.

Before the event even began, liberal groups were trying to cut the protest off at the knees.  Wisconsin Democratic Chairman Joe Wineke issued a statement deriding the “tea bag party” as an organized effort bankrolled by conservative interest groups.  As if union protests are completely organic events – like, some union guy shows up on a picket line completely unaware that other people are going to be there.  “Oh, you guys are protesting today?  Me too!”

I got there about an hour and a half before the festivities began.  Capitol police lined the outer rings of the Capitol, just in case they needed to jump in and beat down someone who might be throwing peanuts on the ground.  People with anti-tax signs were already filling up the sidewalk leading up to the doors of the Capitol.  The stage was set up right in front of the doors, with a large video screen on the left side of the stage.  The right sidewalk was flanked by a humongous 8 foot tall sign with orange letters that said NO NEW TAXES, brought here by Citizens for Responsible Government.  Naturally, their volunteers were handing out pamphlets pushing for Governor Jim Doyle’s recall.

At a quarter to 11:00, the thousand or so people who had already gathered began an impromptu rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”  Apparently not knowing what their next move was, they began singing “God Bless America,” although clearly fewer people knew the words.  They then, for some reason, followed that up with “Amazing Grace,” and even fewer people knew the words to that song.  I figured that if it kept up at that pace, in about six songs, it would just be one guy singing the theme song to “Titanic” really loudly by himself.

The signs were all fairly standard anti-tax and spend sayings.  They ranged from the poetic (“Doyle is a Boil on the Taxpayers’ Ass”) to the scatological (“Flush the Doylet”), to the confusing-but-true-if-taken-literally (“Washington is on Crack”.  Marion Barry is protesting alone in D.C. with a sign that says “you have a point this time.”)  I was talking with a friend, and saw an execrable sign (“Obama Wants White Slavery”), then turned to my friend and said “I guarantee that sign gets mentioned in the press.”  It took almost a full hour before made good on my guarantee.  Wasn’t really a tough prediction – of the probably 500 signs there, that was clearly the one that was going to make the news.

(There was one sign that said “Yes, We Are a Christian Nation,” and I thanked them for holding me in such high regard.)

Speaking of signs and the media, our friends from One Wisconsin Now (an outfit funded almost entirely by union money) were there staging their own protest.  Their executive director Scot Ross was there, along with some of his buddies who were dressed as bankers, complete with top hats and awesome curly mustaches.  They were holding signs that said things like “Don’t Tax My Yacht” and, perhaps most ironically, “Get Back to Work.”  (You may recall the last taxpayer rally at the Capitol, which drew hundreds of government workers there to heckle the anti-tax folks on the taxpayers’ dime.)

Before things got underway, I sat for a while and watched one guy that had an awesome contraption – it was essentially like a bicycle seat attached to this long pole.  So anytime, anywhere you felt like it, you could whip this thing out and sit down on it.  As someone who specializes in laziness, this thing could be revolutionary.  See for yourself:

As I gazed at this technological marvel, the loudspeakers began playing Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” while the giant video screen flashed the words.  When this song came out in 1985, I’m guessing Twisted Sister hadn’t really envisioned it as a rallying cry for conservatives to urge lower taxes.  I’m thinking they were probably championing the cause of more irresponsible sex and heavier drug use.  (Finally, someone speaks on behalf of the drugs.)  Just in case the crowd missed the point of the song, they played it a second time, right after the first.

Twisted Sister was followed up by a an audio montage of Jim Doyle’s greatest hits – all of his past quotes about how “we can not, and I will not raise taxes,” and that “Wisconsin’s government problem isn’t that it taxes too little, it’s that it spends too much.”  By this time, the crowd was really getting big, and the boos washed over the people crammed in near the stage.

Then, the Conservative Bat Signal came.  It is the inviolable rule of conservative events – nothing really happens until Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” plays.  Once the final “God Bless the USA” plays, it’s go time.  Only this time, there was a lag between the song and the speeches.  The stage was still empty, although the sound checks had all been completed.  It took every ounce of self control for me to not run up to the microphone and start yelling “don’t take the brown acid, man!”  Sadly, I think few attendees would have gotten the joke.  Or they would have been stabbed by the Hell’s Angels, who were providing security for the day.

Finally, a crowd gathered on the podium, and Americans For Prosperity director Mark Block introduced the day’s first speaker, fiscal dreamboat Paul Ryan.  As Ryan walked out of the Capitol an on to the stage, the One Wisconsin Now guys berated him via bullhorn, blaming him for high unemployment in his district.  Ryan strode up to the podium, and immediately announced that “everyone is giving me teabags.”  This elicited only a fraction of the muffled laughter I expected, although it may have earned him an entirely new constituency that he has heretofore never courted.

Ryan gave an impassioned speech not unlike many of the speeches he’s given on the floor of the House.  It could have only been a couple minutes, then he was gone.  Following Ryan were a host of speakers, including Wisconsin GOP Chair Reince Priebus.  Priebus had a tough task ahead of him – a good number of the attendees in the crowd equally blame Republicans for the shoddy state of government finances, and he received a couple cat calls to that effect.  But he did a really good job of throwing out the red meat, and by the end of his speech, seems to have more than won the crowd over.

After Priebus spoke, I began winding my way through the crowd to try to observe some of the sights.  The faux-bankers at One Wisconsin Now were giving media interviews, accusing everyone at the rally of being the wealthiest 1% of wage earners.  (Apparently, the liberal groups are unaware that they RUN THE ENTIRE GOVERNMENT now.)

Just by scanning the crowd, you could see that, if anything, these people were the exact opposite.  They are just regular people afraid of losing their jobs – something government employees rarely have to fear – and hacked off at having to pay more of their money to a government that is using it to drive the state’s finances into a ditch.  Aesthetically, they had the look of 4,000 regular, main-street folks – for the cost of Governor Doyle’s trip to the Masters golf tournament, you probably could have bought them all haircuts.

As radio talk show host Vicki McKenna took the stage to wrap things up, the crowd was clearly tired and angry.  The sun had been beating down on them for hours as they listened to speech after speech of depressing (and accurate) descriptions of our government gone bad.  McKenna’s speech hit all the right notes – pointing out all the hidden policy in the budget, urging people to take action, and ordering them to go in and talk to their legislators.  She got a big ovation, then rally attendees broke up and started going their separate ways.

Will it make any difference in the budget?  Not likely.  All of the legislators sympathetic to the protestors’ causes were in attendance – but none of them actually run anything anymore.  Around late July this year, the budget is going to pass in something close to its currentform.  As a result, all these people will be back – probably with a few thousand more of their friends.

Wisconsin Needs a Bit of Brit

So by now, you’ve most likely seen the video of European Parliament member Daniel Hannan excoriating British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue of deficit spending.  It hit the internet a week ago, but in today’s news cycle, it seems like it’s a year old already.

It appears that Hannan has become a favorite of conservative TV talk shows – showing up on Hannity, Glenn Beck, Neil Cavuto and others.  Here’s a clip of him on “Morning Joe:”

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Clearly, the appeal of Hannan’s speech was that he consisely articulated what many people have been saying about the economy all along.  But why do we all of a sudden revere a guy who really didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said?


It’s true.  We here in America take anything British people much more seriously.  And there’s nothing we like more than to have the English deliver us bad news.

Think about it – on a show called AMERICAN Idol, Simon Cowell, a Brit, dishes out brutal, demeaning reviews to contestants.  And we eat it up.  He’s by far the most popular judge.  Remember that “Weakest Link” show, with the mean old British lady that yelled at people?  And doesn’t “Dancing With the Stars” have a British judge?  And “America’s Got Talent?”  (Perhaps the most ironically titled show on TV, as it is hosted by David Hasselhoff.)

This hits a sore spot for me, as I have spent months of my life killing brain cells, sitting at my laptop, wailing about the sorry state of Wisconsin state government.  Instead of cranking out report after report after report, I should have just done the easier thing – just start faking a British accent.  (This entire paragraph has been typed with an English accent – but you could probably already tell that.)  Suddenly, I could do a fraction of the work and be taken ten times as seriously.

Or, I could just import someone – this might be a good time to get my girlfriend Keira Knightley to come to Wisconsin to warn of the dangers of socialized medicine.  Better yet – since Johnny Depp spent like $30 million of our tax money on haircuts while he was here filming “Public Enemies” last year, we could have him pay us back by dressing up like Cap’n Jack Sparrow, adopting the accent, and lecturing our State Legislature on the dangers of utilizing debt for ongoing appropriations.  It’s FOOLPROOF.

Sheridan’s Love Letter to Himself

There’s an old saying that talking to yourself doesn’t make you crazy – but when you start answering yourself, it means trouble.

A couple of days ago, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan announced that he wanted pay freezes for the full Assembly.  Fair enough – although I maintain that if elected representatives cave on an issue like this after a mere hint of criticism, they’ll literally cave on anything.  But whatever.

In order to get the ball rolling, Sheridan had to make a request of the Joint Committee on Employment Relations – half of which he, as Speaker of the Assembly, controls.  So yesterday, Sheridan had to essentially send himself a letter requesting he call a meeting of this committee.  It turned out to be persuasive, as Sheridan apparently convinced himself that the commitee should meet.

In fact, we know Sheridan got the letter he wrote to himself, because he then actually responded to it.  In his public response, he said:

“Given the record budget deficit facing Wisconsin, and the tough economic challenges working families are struggling with today, freezing the next scheduled legislator pay increase is simply the right thing to do. As Co- Chair of the Joint Committee on Employment Relations, I will see to it that the committee will consider and approve this action at our next scheduled meeting.”

Of course, this is all necessary to create a paper trail, so Sheridan can take credit for freezing legislator salaries when it finally happens.  (Meanwhile, dozens of legislative staff will continue to make significantly more than their bosses.) But it just feeds the public’s view of the Legislature as being out of touch with how the real world works.

The Picture is Getting Clearer

We’ve made the case numerous times on this blog that Governor Doyle’s proposed budget uses too much one-time money to balance the state budget.  Just yesterday, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated the structural deficit for 2011-13 at $1.5 billion – and keep in mind, that’s with $3 billion in new ongoing taxes added to the rolls.

It seems that some local government officials are starting to pick up on the house of cards Doyle has built.  In Madison ( of all places), a school board member has written a criticism of Doyle’s use of one-time money, understanding the peril which awaits school budgets in the future:

One such shell game, according to Christian Schneider, conservative blogger and guest speaker at the WASB Legislative Issues conference, is for Doyle and the Legislature to continue to pull billions out of one budget and plug other budget holes.

“This trap is very alluring,” Schneider says, “especially if the use of non-routine revenues is implemented through a series of complex transfers that are not easy for the general public to understand. In the short term, this allows policymakers to avoid spending cuts. But in the long term, the practice can’t be sustained.”

It’s also bad governance.


Doyle recently urged school districts to remain under the revenue caps as they spend federal dollars. He said, “If they don’t, they’ll face big budget holes in future years and possibly anger homeowners if property taxes go up too much.”

Doyle should take his own advice. A budget dependent on one-time federal money for education and transfers to plug holes in budget gaps is shortsighted at best.

Until state and local leaders, along with the public, advance the conversation on how we fund schools and at the same time achieve educational excellence, we will continue to play the fools for the Bard. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in tragedy.

Of course, quoting me may be the kiss of death in Madison – but at least it shows fiscal responsibility can be an issue shared by both parties.

Why Conservatives Like Me are So… Negative

Wisconsin is in the midst of a health-care crisis. A health-care crisis so serious, in fact, that state government needs to swoop in and seize control of the health insurance system in a way no state has done in the history of our nation.

Luckily for us, this health-care crisis apparently exists nowhere else in the country, which means nobody in any other state would even be tempted to move to Wisconsin to take advantage of the “free” health care offered by Wisconsin’s taxpayers.

Such is the logic of Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who has vowed to re-introduce the $15.2 billion government-run “Healthy Wisconsin” plan this session. In responding to a recent Wisconsin Policy Research Institute report that an estimated 142,000 sick people would indeed move to our state to take advantage of free health care, Decker took a shot at WPRI, saying the institute likes to criticize ideas, but they “never come up with any suggestions.”

Clearly, WPRI has replaced late-night roadside breathalyzer tests as Decker’s primary nemesis.

It seems unlikely that Decker stays up late reading WPRI’s reports, each of which is bursting at the seams with proactive suggestions. But this is forgivable, since it probably takes him a lot of time to answer all of Chuck Chvala’s Facebook messages.

Decker’s point, however, is worth addressing, since it’s a refrain heard often in politics: “Why so negative?”

To some, merely criticizing a damaging government program without offering a commensurate remedy makes you a “nattering nabob of negativity.”

Yet for conservatives, stopping terrible new government actions is the whole point. We don’t look at government in terms of what it can do for us – we see government in terms of what it does to us.

Thus, any proactive suggestion we have to reduce governmental interference in the market and our lives would be as welcome to Decker as a lap dance from Gov Jim Doyle. So Decker can complain all he wants about WPRI not making “suggestions,” but it’s clear he’d ignore them if he got around to reading them anyway.

One can look at improving government in two ways: urging it to do things that help us and convincing it to stop screwing up.

As it currently stands, our state government is doing neither. In fact, if the Legislature and governor went halfway and merely stopped screwing up, we wouldn’t be staring at a $5.7 billion deficit.

Case in point: In February, the Democrat-controlled state Senate voted on the same day to raise the state minimum wage in perpetuity, and to change the order in which banks are paid back when businesses go bankrupt, which will make it riskier for creditors to lend money.

One is left with two explanations after those votes, and neither is appealing. Either the Senate is too dumb to understand that discouraging banks from lending and forcing higher costs on businesses is a syringe full of rat poison for an already struggling economy. Or the Democrats know damn well it is, but they have to pay back the unions that make up their base. Neither scenario exactly inspires one to get out the pompoms in support of our elected officials.

Yet Russ Decker clearly thought these were good, proactive “suggestions.” Unfortunately, they are government actions that will force higher unemployment and, consequently, more budget problems, as more unemployed workers will need government services. As it turns out, doing nothing was our best bet.

Which brings us back to Healthy Wisconsin.

The state has budgeted about $28 billion in general fund spending for the next two years, but faces a $5.7 billion deficit.

For the sake of argument, concede the Democrats’ talking point that the economic recession is to blame for the entire shortfall. Imagine what would have happened had the state had its hands on $30 billion of Healthy Wisconsin money in the next two years.

There would have been a disastrous $6 billion deficit in the Healthy Wisconsin fund, on top of the $5.7 billion general fund deficit. It would have been a complete catastrophe – even the Donner Party would have been saying, “Well, at least we’re not from Wisconsin.”

So we here at WPRI will sit patiently by our mailbox, waiting for a signed card from Russ Decker thanking us for arguing against Healthy Wisconsin and saving him from such a budget disaster.

Now he can get back to doing good things for the people of Wisconsin, like passing tougher penalties for drunk driving.

Oh, wait – he’s against that, too.

WEAC’s “Evolving” Standards

The mood was sour at the WEAC offices in August of 2001. Republican Governor Scott McCallum had signed a budget that only increased school funding by $472 million over the biennium. These new funds, approved by McCallum while the Governor was wrestling with a budget deficit, represented increases of 3.1% and 4.2% in school aids over the 2001-03 biennium.

In a press release following the bill signing, the teachers’ union sneered at McCallum’s paltry effort, calling it a “status quo” budget. At no point in the release did they mention the half a billion in new funds they received – instead, they excoriated McCallum for vetoing a .78% increase in the property tax caps and for vetoing relaxation of the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) law, which caps teacher salaries. They derided the Republican governor for not increasing aid enough for special education, saying the “lack” of special education funds meant “school districts will be forced to pit special education against other programs, resulting in decisions that hurt all students.” To the extent they mention the increased aids at all, they dismiss them as merely “part of a continuing effort” to hold down property taxes.

Nearly eight years later, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle stood at the podium in front of the Legislature, which was now controlled fully by members of his own party. Faced with a budget deficit of $5.9 billion (much of it his own doing) Doyle announced his intention to increase school aids by $426 million over the biennium.  Even public school children in Wisconsin will recognize this as $46 million less than the increase authorized by McCallum in 2001.

Doyle’s budget also included a funding shell game that imperiled school aids in the future. Doyle cut over $500 million in general funds out of school aids and plugged in an equal amount in federal “stimulus” funds to cover the aids – federal funds which may very well not be available in the next budget. On top of that, he funds virtually the entire school aid increase with one-time federal money.  When 2011 rolls around, school aids could be over $1 billion in the hole and fighting tooth and nail with other state programs for funding.

Undoubtedly, the small funding increase, coupled with the risky way funds are shifted around to patch up holes, would cause the thoughtful folks at WEAC to have some serious concerns regarding Doyle’s budget.

Surprise!  The day after his budget address, WEAC wasted no time in praising the proposed Doyle school funding plan, gushing that it “stays true to Wisconsin’s priorities and values.”

WEAC’s President Mary Bell’s reaction to the budget was grounds for Doyle to file a restraining order against her.  “The governor’s budget proposal recognizes that we must all make sacrifices in light of Wisconsin’s challenging economic conditions, but that there is no greater promise than the one we make to educate our children for the future. Investing in them reaps dividends for generations to come,” said  Bell, presumably reaching for a cold towel.

In the real world, such a naked double standard might cause one some embarrassment. But this is politics, where elected officials can steal from taxpayers and drive the state into crippling debt with impunity. Interest groups know that as long as they back the right horse, they only have to be as consistent as their most recent press release.  And WEAC has taken full advantage of the lack of institutional memory in the Capitol building.

Take, for example, some of Jim Doyle’s past budgets with regard to school finance. In 2003, facing a budget deficit (you may be sensing a theme here), Doyle proposed eliminating the two-thirds school funding requirement and granting an increase of $26 million in general funds (.01% and .5%) between 2003 and 2005. As expected, WEAC gave Doyle a pass, calling the budget situation “worse than grim,” conceding there would be “pain on the way to recovery.”

Republicans, who had gained control of both houses the previous fall, believed that with such a paltry state aid increase, school districts would simply pass the cost on to taxpayers. So the GOP shrewdly increased school funding by $88 million over what Doyle had proposed, along with a commensurate cap on local property taxes that could be loosened via referendum.

At this point, the teachers’ union lost its mind. WEAC President Stan Johnson, the clown prince of hyperbole, declared the Republican version of the budget would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age” – as if children would be forced to ride mastodons to school. When Democrats propose increased spending, it’s because “every kid deserves a great school.” When Republicans increase spending, you’ll have a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing you to the mall.

Of course, WEAC contended that the tightened property tax caps wouldn’t give them as much money as they wanted – so they called it a “cut,” despite the fact that funding would have gone up by $120 and $100 per pupil in 2003 and 2004, respectively. In government, not getting as much as you want is considered a cut… unless Jim Doyle does it.

Consider Doyle’s new budget – the one that proposes the dangerously out of balance $426 million aid increase. In their departmental request, the Department of Public Instruction made the pitch for a $566 million increase. Doyle’s budget came up $140 million short. Had Scott McCallum done so, WEAC would be acting like he just ripped the lunch box out of the hand of every little curly-haired schoolgirl in Wisconsin.  When Doyle does it, it’s one of our “priorities and values.”

Naturally, nothing is going to keep this rhetorical double standard from cropping up every two years. In the last budget, when Republicans proposed tightening revenue caps to allow an increase of $100 per pupil, Democratic Senator Bob Jauch said he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Russ Decker said the proposal was like “putting a gun to the head of public education and to students.”

Below is a chart of total proposed per-pupil spending in 2007-08 under the Doyle plan and under the Republican Joint Finance motion:

It’s good to see Senators take a rhetorical cue from WEAC. As long as they’re on the teachers’ union payroll, it makes perfect sense that they’d be reading from the same employee manual.

Welcome to the Federal Department of Wisconsin

Whether they’re conservative or liberal, Wisconsinites can all agree on one thing:  We LOVE being from Wisconsin.  We love playing cardiac Russian roulette by gorging on cheese curds.  Nobody bats an eye when someone wants to be buried in a Packer jersey.  And we’re proud of the fact that the sub-zero weather gives us thick skins and warm hearts.

In fact, when our nation’s founders wrote the U.S. Constitution, this sense of regional pride may have been what they had in mind.  Our federalist system rewards state sovereignty, making each state what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis dubbed a “laboratory of democracy.”  If we think (or know, as the case may be) Illinois is a cesspool, we don’t have to live under their laws.  Better yet, now that we’re done renting their quarterback, we can go back to pretending Mississippi doesn’t exist.

However, over the years, state sovereignty has begun to erode as the federal government grows in scope and reach.  Each Congress births more federal programs for the states to implement, and more mandates for them to obey.  And at an alarming rate, Wisconsin has been drunk-dialing Congress at 3 AM, begging for more federal aid to keep the state’s programs alive.

Until this year, Wisconsin’s loss of independent governing authority has been a slow process.  But the creeping hand of the federal government has grown steadily for a quarter century.  Between 1984 and 2009, federal funds as a percentage of the Wisconsin budget grew from 18% to 25%. However, this year, the floodgates have been opened.

Governor Doyle’s proposed 2009-11 budget, on the strength of a $4.5 billion increase in federal funds, increases the federal share of the state budget from 25%to 30% in one year.  Commensurately, state general purpose revenue (GPR) drops from 50% of state spending to 45%.  In many cases, such as school aids, Doyle merely plugs federal money in where state general fund revenue had previously been used:

The skyrocketing use of federal funds to run our state’s budget is troubling on several fronts.  If the feds turn the “stimulus” spigot off after this biennium, Wisconsin is on the hook for billions of dollars that will likely be raised via tax increase.  Conversely, if Congress keeps pumping money into our state budget to prop up our spending, we will have ceased to be our own sovereign entity.  We might as well just shut down state government and declare ourselves the newly-created federal “Department of Wisconsin.”

The more federal funds Wisconsin accepts, the more it opens itself up for blackmail and micromanagement by Congress.  We all remember the feds threatening to pull transportation funding unless states changed their minimum drinking age and minimum drunk driving standard.  All this federal funding makes Wisconsin the federal government’s marionette.  Whoever holds the purse strings wields unlimited coercive power.

Think about your job.  If you didn’t get a paycheck from your boss, and he asked you to go through the office files and re-sort them in reverse alphabetical order, you’d probably graciously invite him to reproduce with himself.  But since you need the income, you glumly put your head down, mutter to yourself, and suffer through the paper cuts.

The erosion in sovereignty exacerbated by the Legislature this session hasn’t been limited merely to the use of federal funds.  A week before he introduced his current budget, Doyle signed a fiscal appetizer into law, known as the so-called “budget repair” bill.  This bill contained a provision known as the “Streamlined Sales Tax Act,” which increases sales taxes on goods and services in Wisconsin by forcing our sales tax exemption code to conform to other states.  Essentially, Arkansas and other member states will be determining the goods on which we can and can’t charge sales tax.  If our Legislature wants to promote the sale of a certain Wisconsin-made product by granting it a sales tax exemption in the state, too bad – the Interplanetary High Court of Sales Tax Exemptions must all agree to the changes.  And thus, we’ve sold our sovereign right to decide what’s best for Wisconsin in exchange for a few extra bucks.

In the early 1990s, Wisconsin was perhaps the most admired laboratory of democracy in America.  Wisconsin had the first school choice program, giving poor parents the right to send their children to better schools.  Welfare reform in Wisconsin was so successful, the state’s plan served as the model when Congress overhauled the federal welfare system.

In the ultimate irony, Wisconsin itself has now transformed itself into a welfare recipient.  Unwilling to do the hard work to balance his budget, Jim Doyle now sits at home all day in sweatpants, working on his correspondence art school Tippy the Turtle drawing, waiting for that federal check to come through.  And as long as our elected officials are willing to sell off the sovereignty that made our state great, this disturbing trend will continue.

At least until Nancy Pelosi tries a cheese curd.

Taking Pocan’s Bait

Ever since he was first elected to the State Assembly in 1998, Representative Mark Pocan has had a soft spot in his heart for the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance.  In May of 1999, Pocan charged the WTA with being a shill for Republican interests, earning him a nice little article in the Wisconsin State Journal, which printed his charges verbatim.

A full decade later, Pocan is still at it, despite not having contradicted a single statement made by the Taxpayers Alliance over that period.  Recently, the WTA’s President, Todd Berry, earned the scorn of Democrats in state government by pointing out that a large chunk of the state’s then-$5.7 billion deficit was actually comprised of agency requests that had not yet been granted.  Fast forward to last week’s budget announcement, when Governor Doyle’s very own budget summary (p. 9) admitted that Doyle “cut” the deficit by $1.8 billion merely by rejecting new departmental spending requests.  (The line to apologize to Berry forms on the left.)  

Having apparently already solved the state’s budget deficit, Pocan yesterday sent out a glib press release instructing the media to refrain from calling the Taxpayers Alliance “nonpartisan.”  Recognizing that the media likely wouldn’t appreciate being lectured on how to label certain groups, Pocan made his request vapid and lighthearted, at one point joking about his likeness to Brad Pitt.  Conveniently, Pocan seems to forget about the “nonpartisan” label given to lefty front groups like the League of Women Voters, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, etc.

This release apparently infuriated Representative Steve Nass, who fired off an angry press release accusing Pocan of being anti-American, or something.  Then Rep. Leah Vukmir issued a release that invoked Orwell’s “1984” to defend Berry.  (I have to sheepishly admit that someone had to explain the press release to me for me to understand it.)

Responding to Pocan serves two ends, neither of them desirable.  It makes it appear as though legislators have nothing better to do.  Also, since it will likely  be exclusively Republicans running to Berry’s aid, it almost appears to strengthen his previously nonexistent point.

Todd Berry is a big boy.  I think he does an excellent job of defending himself, as he has had to do for years.  The work he does in explaining the budget to regular dopes like me is invaluable.  Responding to Pocan is merely taking his bait, in his attempt to get the GOP to talk about anything other than the disastrous budget his caucus is about to ram through.

An Apology from the Distant Past

Dear Person in the Future:

Greetings from the year 2009. As a gesture of goodwill, there are some things we need to discuss.

First, congratulations on the Brewers winning their 3rd World Series in a row, beating the Prince Fielder-led Yankees in seven games. A big atta-boy to Keanu Reeves for winning his first Oscar, playing a gay washed up ex-wrestler who ages backwards. It certainly was the role of a lifetime. I understand that, due to a federal mandate, General Motors is close to developing a car that runs on sunshine and dreams – here’s hoping the technology works out for you. And it’s nice to see that the prophecy is true – everyone actually does eat Dippin’ Dots.

The main purpose of this letter, however, is to issue an apology. Certainly, people in the future are still talking about the economic downturn of 2009, and the effect it had on the state’s finances. Believe it or not, when the economy went bad in 2009, we actually cared more about how government was hurting than how regular people were coping with losing their jobs. (Then again, the most famous woman in America in 2009 was a crazy Angelina Jolie look-a-like who had octuplets, so that might explain some things.)

You see, in 2009, we found out the state had a $5.9 billion budget deficit. In other words, the state was committed to spending $5.9 billion more than it was taking from working people of Wisconsin. Naturally, government sprung into action and did what government knows how to do best – it figured out new ways to spend more money and further micromanage our lives.

In fact, Future Person, at a time when Wisconsin state government could have restructured itself in a way to prevent future crises, it instead kicked the can down the road, preserving itself over the interests of the citizens. In his 2009-11 proposed budget, Governor Jim Doyle raised taxes by $2.2 billion, claiming that he was making the tax system more progressive by raising taxes on the top 1% of wage earners. Fortunately for him, nobody in the media pointed out that he was raising the cigarette tax, the most regressive tax that exists (and paid for by the poorest citizens in Wisconsin), by $257 million.

Actually, while Doyle promised “major” cuts to make up the deficit, his proposed budget spends 8% more in 2010 than it did in 2009. His increases are funded largely by swapping out general fund spending for federal “stimulus” aid, which constitutes a one-time budget plug. In the most egregious example, Doyle cut school equalization aid by $498 million, then replaced it with $498 million in temporary federal funds. Additionally, there are hundreds of millions of dollars Doyle plans to sprinkle over the budget like fiscal oregano, seasoning his budget to the government workers’ tastes.

Of course, since the teachers’ unions have undoubtedly improved financial education in the future, you already know what this means: funding ongoing programs with temporary funds leads to large budget deficits. And that is why, according to Doyle’s own budget document, his plan leaves structural deficits of $2.5 billion in 2010 and $2.3 billion in 2011 – barely less than the $5.9 billion he claims to have “balanced” this time around. By now, you have figured out what that meant – billions of dollars in tax increases to feed the state’s insatiable spending appetite.

So, dear Person of the Future, I apologize for waking you out of your hyperbaric slumber to deliver this apology. I know it’s enough to knock you right out of your Snuggie. We had our chance back here in 2009, we knew exactly what was going to happen, and we blew it. Not even President Miley Cyrus can bail you out of this predicament now. So when you send a killer cyborg in a time machine back to correct all our wrongs, make sure he has a good calculator.


Christian Schneider

-February 23, 2009

The Democrats’ Anti-Constitutional Power Grab

The spending bill introduced by Democrats last week is either a “stimulus” bill or a “budget adjustment” bill, depending on what purpose they need it to serve based on the conversation they are having at the time.  (Ironically, the bill is neither, as it won’t stimulate anything and only fills in a fraction of the 2008-09 deficit.)  But one portion of the bill deserves extra scrutiny, as it turns our representative form of government completely on its head in order to facilitate the most naked of power grabs.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds headed Wisconsin’s way, Democrats want to spend it as quickly as possible, with minimal oversight.  In order to make this happen, they have included a provision that virtually gives sole stimulus fund spending authority to three people: Governor Jim Doyle, and Represenative Mark Pocan and Senator Mark Miller, who chair the Joint Finance Committee for their respective houses.  (Had Miller not stabbed Senator Judy Robson in the back and voted to remove her as Majority Leader last session, it would be someone else spending the money on behalf of the Senate.  To the victor goes the spoils.)

Article VIII of the Wisconsin Constitution specifically states that “no money shall be paid out of the treasury except in pursuance of an appropriation by law.”  In other words, when money is spent, it must be approved by the full legislature in the form of a law that is debated in an open and transparent way.  The Constitution goes on to require that appropriation bills receive a roll call vote, rather than a voice vote.

Yet this new bill destroys that process as laid out by our state’s founders.  Instead, the new bill gives two legislators the ability to decide how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in Wisconsin. Since this authority will be granted to these two legislative leaders by a full vote of the Legislature, it appears that it is certainly a constitutional arrogation of authority.  But the end result – consolidating such major spending decisions in the hands of so few people – while not “unconstitutional,” can certainly be classified as “anti-constitutional.”  It goes against the entire principle of open government that the Constitution prescribes.

There’s a good reason appropriation bills must go through the full legislative process.  They get a committee hearing, complete with testimony, and a committee vote.  In committee, there’s an opportunity to amend the bill if necessary.  Then the bill goes to the full floor of the legislative house for a vote, where it is debated, and can once again be amended by the full Senate or Assembly.  Then, after it makes it through one house, it begins the process anew in the other house, where it gets even more debate and tweaking.

Not only does this process allow for public input and bill correction, it spreads the responsibility for the bill over the entire legislature.  Each elected official has buy-in, and can say the interests of their constituents was represented.  Yet under this new consolidation plan, only two legislators are accountable to anyone.  As a result, the new scheme is replete with opportunities for mismanagement and corruption.

Ask the people of Illinois what happens when immense governmental decisions are consolidated in the hands of a few people.  The alleged Blagojevich swap meet for Barack Obama’s senate seat happens.  Favors are handed out with no transparency, no debate, and no public involvement.  If we were to write a recipe that virtually guaranteed as much corruption as possible in the “stimulus” process, we couldn’t do any better than the Democrats’ plan before us today.  A teaspoon of closed government here, a dash of undue campaign contributor influence there, and a heaping helping of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money all make for a toxic casserole taxpayers are going to have to swallow.  And like it.

Naturally, Wisconsin’s “good government” groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause will be highly critical of Democrats for this pro-corruption, anti-transparency power grab.  And on the same day, a tap-dancing dolphin will be elected to the governorship.

It is often said that the only thing worse than a government that acts too slow is a government that acts too fast.  And we’re all about to learn that lesson the hard way.

Should We Be Thankful For Our “Low” Taxes?

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a column I wrote about the disastrous state of Wisconsin’s finances, and how both parties were to blame for our fiscal collapse.  This piece was intended to be a counter-argument to another column, written from the liberal perspective, which attempted to explain that our taxes really aren’t very high, after all.

This editorial, which apparently it took seven people to write,  made a couple claims that popped out:

However, some argue for reduced spending, falsely claiming that profligate public outlay is the cause of today’s economic crisis. This analysis is wrong. Wisconsin has been careful in its overall taxing and spending. Between 2000 and 2006, total state taxes per person decreased from $2,740 to $2,475, when adjusted for inflation. In fact, there have been $12 billion in state tax cuts since 1999, more than twice the current deficit.

Apparently, in arriving at the fact that “total state taxes per person” have decreased, the authors used a Brookings Institution website that draws on census bureau data.  When you look at the “total state taxes” numbers they use, it contradicts the state’s own data as reported on the Department of Administration’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR).  According to the Brookings Institution, the state brought in $14.7 billion in “total state taxes,” in 2000, and $13.8 billion in 2006 – thus, the drop in the per capita number.  There is no explanation as to what “total taxes” includes. Furthermore, the population in Wisconsin grew by 3.7% between 2000 and 2006, which alone would have contributed to the appearance that per capita taxes were dropping.

Yet when the state reports its General Fund taxes, the numbers are drastically different.  The state CAFR says that in 2000, sales, income, corporate, and other taxes collected $10.9 billion.  Due to a combination of tax cuts signed into law by Governor Thompson in 1999 and the 2001 recession, tax receipts dropped to $10.2 billion in 2001 and 2002, steadily climbing back to 10.4 billion in 2003.  By 2006, tax receipts had climbed to 12.4 billion, or a 9.9% increase over taxes collected in 2000.  And keep in mind, this is in the midst of a recession in 2001 that it took the state several years from which to recover.  The shrinking revenue was due, in large part, to people losing their jobs and buying fewer goods, not necessarily because the Legislature was being “careful” in our taxing and spending.

In fact, if you bypass the Brookings Institution website (which purports to use Census Bureau data) and go straight to the Census Bureau, the numbers look much different.  In 2000, the Census Bureau reported Wisconsin taxes at $2,344.51 per capita.  In 2005 (the most recent number available,) per capita taxes had increased to $2,375.77.  And again, this is after the state suffered a 4-year lag in collections due to the 2001 recession (which may be why they only chose these specific years to make their point.)

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, they’re right.  Let’s concede their point (that seems to be flatly incorrect) that somehow taxes are falling.  According to the CAFR, state general fund spending increased 13.3% percent (from $11.3 billion to $12.8 billion) during this time that our taxes were supposedly dropping.  This is exactly the point of my last report and subsequent columnThe state is spending more money than it is taking in.

So how did we increase spending by 13.3% while our revenue was supposedly dropping by $1 billion (according to their numbers)?  Our governor and legislators dumped in $2.4 billion in one-time money to balance the budget, blowing a hole in future budgets.  They artificially made it look like we were spending less by offloading general fund expenses to program and segregated revenue.  (Think cutting general fund aid to the UW by $250 million and replacing it with increased tuition – which makes it look like we’re cutting general fund taxes, while instead, we’re just offloading those expenses to students.)  They issued debt to plug holes in the budget, committing taxpayers to decades of paying those bonds off.

As for the $12 billion in tax cuts they claim we’ve had since 1999, I have no idea where they came up with the number.  But I can assure them of one thing – had the state collected this mythical $12 billion and spent it, the budget deficit would be much worse than it is now, as the spending base would be much higher.  If there’s something the state has proved, none of that money would have gone to a “rainy day” fund to ameliorate recessionary budget downturns.

As an aside, it should also be noted that almost all of the authors of this column are frequent contributors to Democratic campaigns, including UW-Madison economist Andrew Reschovsky, who has contributed $7,850 to Democrats since 2000 – including Governor Jim Doyle.  At one point (2002), Reschovsky was a vocal critic of structural deficits, yet now he says nothing about the current imbalance.  I wonder why?

Stimulating a Heart Attack

Seeing as how we are a think tank, I sat down today to think about the stimulus package as passed by the House last week.  Quickly, as it is wont to do, my mind wandered to the subject of food.  I tried thinking about the trillion dollar stimulus package again.  Then more food.  Stimulus… hot dog… stimulus… hot dog.

Then it came to me – my brain was reminding me of something.  A while ago, I read about the “hot dog rollup,” an attempt by some college kids to come up with the most unhealthy food of all time.  This coronary delight (to which was ascribed the name “The Last Supper” by my wife) included a hot dog rolled in bacon, then rolled in egg-soaked ground beef and topped with butter and cheese.  For a full play-by-play account of the creation of this Frankenweiner, go here. (Those who lived after eating it give at a thumbs-up.)

In effect, the stimulus bill is the legal equivalent of the hot dog rollup.  To call the bill “pork” does a disservice to swine across the nation.  It is comprised of  special interest favors, heaped on top of contributor paybacks, slathered with a healthy dose of social engineering, all on a buttery roll.  Charles Krauthammer has called it “the largest earmark bill – earmark, but without stealth, just out in the open-of special interests, favors, parochial interests, in American history.”

Take, for instance, the “Buy America” provisions of the bill that require steel paid for by stimulus funds to come from American sources.  As people who actually do business in these areas have pointed out, this provision is almost certain to spark a trade war that could depress the economy even further.  Most members of Congress probably think “Smoot-Hawley” is a company that makes canned apricots.   We’ve been down this road before, with disastrous results.

Yet the “Buy America” provision is merely a giveaway to union workers, the overwhelming majority of whom vote for and contribute money to Democrats.  The  bill sends billions of dollars to states to prop up their government programs – which special interest groups like the teachers’ union and human service advocates spend generously during campaigns to protect.

As a result, I will be here at my computer waiting, patiently, for “good government” groups like the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause to condemn this bill for all its special interest giveaways.  The Democracy Campaign keeps trying to convince us that our corrupt government for sale to the highest bidder – no better chance to point that out than when Congress passes the largest lard-laden bill in American history.

Of course, this is a joke – because these “good government” groups are merely a front for liberals to push their ideology under the guise of cleaning up campaign finance.  If they truly wished to clean up the system, they’d be cranking out press release after press release condemning the stimulus package.  But since it was passed by their Democratic brethren, you will hear nothing but crickets from their phony outrage factories.

In fact, for the Democracy Campaign, corruption only apparently exists when the Legislature passes tax cuts, rather than new spending.  Their evidence that the Wisconsin Legislature is corrupt is based almost solely on how many tax exemptions we have – not on how much spending we do to appease their big-government tastes.  So, if you’re scoring at home:

Letting you keep more of your own money = “corrupt”

Using government to distribute your money to a select group of campaign contributors = “stimulus.”

Perhaps I’m being too negative.  I’m sure their criticism of the biggest special interest spending spree in American history is forthcoming.  If you see it, let me know – I’ll be out riding on my unicorn with Natalie Portman.

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