Last weekend, I took the kids to see the Wes Anderson animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” (Trailer here.) Basically, the movie follows the cunning machinations of Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney), who ropes all the other animals into troublesome situations solely so he can save them, ultimately looking like the hero. In a speech near the end of the film, Mr. Fox explains to his wife that his plots are the one way he can feel popular and needed to the rest of the animals – so they think he’s “Fantastic.” (My kids both gave it a hearty thumbs-up, which warms my wannabe-hipster heart.)
It will surprise no one that I immediately thought about state government with regard to Mr. Fox’s schemes. In fact, they are almost mirror images of each other. No single entity creates more problems – that it then expects credit to fix – than our state government. As Homer Simpson once said, beer is the cause, and solution to all of life’s problems. The same can be said of the State of Wisconsin.
- State government has created a tax structure and regulatory climate that strangles business growth and entrepreneurship – but the Doyle Administration happily takes credit for bringing 17 jobs to River Falls. (Just keeping my hair look like it’s carefully messed up employs at least five people in Wisconsin.) Because of the nearly $200 million “combined reporting” tax increase passed in the last budget, businesses now need to come to the state for handouts to stay put.
- The state has created a child care subsidy system in Milwaukee that is rife with fraud and criminal behavior, as it treats children simply as cash registers to be looted. As a result, many of the people working in positions of trust are, at best incompetent, and at worst, criminal. Two children die after being left alone in child care vans – including a four month old infant – and two more children survive being abandoned in hot vans. Naturally, rather than addressing the root causes of having day care workers that can’t count up to “four,” the Legislature passes a bill requiring alarms be installed in vans. Press releases bragging about passage of the bill are issued – sadly, only two children too late. Needless to say, there will be more problems in the program that have nothing to do with van alarms.
- Over the span of decades, Wisconsin has become a national embarrassment, as drivers with six, seven, and eight DUI arrests continue killing citizens on our roads. For generations, the Legislature does nothing (in fact, in some areas of the state, driving with a beer cozy in one hand is part of the road test at the DMV.) Finally, shamed into doing something, the Legislature bickers for nearly two years before passing a watered-down bill that only makes drunk driving a felony on the fourth conviction. “Problem solved!” – until you’re run down by someone with three previous arrests.
- The Governor cut aid to the University of Wisconsin System by $250 million in the 2003-05 budget, then increased tuition by over 30% to make up the difference. This punished low income students seeking an education on a UW campus. The state then doubled their UW financial aid program (up to $55 million) over the next five years, declaring tuition to be “affordable.” Needless to say, tuition would have remained more “affordable” had Doyle not looted the UW several years earlier and jacked up tuition to backfill to hole. Problem created, problem “solved.”
These examples merely scratch the surface of the problems state government creates in their zeal to spend more money to fix them. (My favorite example: the state employee retirement fund invests hundreds of millions of dollars in tobacco companies, then the state spends millions of dollars on programs trying to get people to stop smoking. Also, see: Interchange, Zoo.)
Take, for example, this article that appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal last weekend. It details the travails of Jason McGuigan, who was gunned down in 2003 over what appears to be a bad gambling debt. The answer to the scourge of gambling, according to some anti-gaming groups, is to spend $15 million in taxpayer money to treat problem gamblers.
Of course, this is the same state government that recently balanced a large chunk of its budget hole by granting Native American casinos in Wisconsin expanded Las Vegas-style gambling in perpetuity. Even lifetime anti-gambling crusader State Senator Fred Risser laid down like a sleeping dog to the Indian gaming interests as they sought complete autonomy to expand their casinos without any Legislative oversight. Somehow “problem gamblers” aren’t really that much of a concern when it means a few million extra bucks in revenue for the state.
Also, keep in mind that the state still runs a lottery, which vacuums out the pockets of Wisconsin’s underclass in order to give them false hope that they will one day strike it rich. So while the state spends billions on services to serve the poor, they have no problem picking their pocket to support increased local spending programs. (Lottery proceeds go to property taxpayers to lower their bills – which allows local governments to spend more without citizens burning down the capitol building in protest.)
(Interesting side note: State law bars the use of lottery funds for “promoting” the lottery, but advertising is allowed “only to inform potential participants of the lottery’s existence.” Basically, ads are only supposed to be educational, not entertaining. Someone should probably explain that to this dancing badger:)
In the past decade, the state lottery has made Wisconsin’s low-to middle class a whopping $4.5 billion poorer. Of course, that\’s never the headline – credit is only claimed by elected officials when more state spending is spent to help these very people with their money troubles. As it turns out, the state is really the one with the troubling gambling problem – clearly, state bureaucracies couldn’t run without it.
That is why thought is rarely given to preventing problems before they happen – because there’s no credit to be claimed for avoiding disasters. Legislators need us to feel that they’re taking proactive action on something. There’s no photo-op for Governor Doyle if taxes are low and small businesses are allowed to operate free of government intrusion. No newspaper is going to write a headline that says “Area Man Keeps Job He’s Held for 20 Years Because Employer Pays Less in Taxes.”
Until politicians are willing to accept that government isn’t the beginning, middle, and end of all our problems, state government will continue to be the friend that drinks too much, barfs in the back of your car, then expects credit for cleaning it up. There’s simply no incentive to get it right the first time – since there are always self-congratulatory press releases waiting on the back end.
(Double secret side note: It has come to my attention that this is the second time I’ve cited a Roald Dahl book in reference to state government. You may recall my column in which Willy Wonka explained the state budget. Next up: How Judy Blume’s “Are You There God, It\s Me, Margaret?” explains Hamid Karzai’s intransigence.)