Where Rhetoric and Governance Diverge
By Christian Schneider
On May 15th of this year, bellicose State Senator Bob Jauch sat in his Joint Finance Committee seat, nonplussed. Jauch waved a copy of a plan to tighten revenue caps on Wisconsin school districts in the air and declared that he had “a hard time understanding the Republican compulsion to take a meat axe to the children of this state.” Then he got angry.
The Northwest Wisconsin senator went on to describe current revenue caps by accusing Republicans of “sticking a fork in children’s eyes,” and harming caring parents by “taking an axe and cutting them off at the knees.” Committee chairman Russ Decker chimed in by saying the proposal “put a gun to the head of public education.” Had the debate gone on longer, the audience no doubt would have heard about how teachers were being disemboweled, doused in lighter fluid, and run through the woodchipper of injustice.
For Democrats, school revenue caps have long provoked this kind of public outrage. Since 1993, the state has limited the amount of revenue a school district can raise on a per pupil basis. If a school district wants to raise taxes above the limit, it may go to a referendum for approval. The revenue cap statute is part of the “three legged stool” of school finance, which also includes limits on teacher salaries (the Qualified Economic Offer) and state aid.
Since the inception of this school finance system, the state teachers’ union has vigorously fought revenue caps and the QEO. In the past, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) warned that lowering the revenue cap would make Wisconsin “the equivalent of a struggling third-world country.” In that same budget, WEAC claimed that the revenue caps would “return Wisconsin to the Ice Age.” (As if your child was going to be taught algebra by a mastodon if we slightly reduce the increase in annual school district spending.)
With Democrats taking over the State Senate last year, Jauch and his colleagues finally had the chance to undo the “damage” wrought by revenue limits over the past 15 years. Yet in a Senate Democrat budget plan that represented an orgy of spending bold enough to make Caligula blush, there sat school revenue caps, virtually untouched.[i]
In this budget version, Democrats did propose eliminating the QEO, but that change is largely cosmetic as long as revenue caps remain. Only about half of school districts in Wisconsin impose the teacher pay limits anyway, and as long as the revenue caps remain, school districts will still have to abide by them. The most likely scenario to occur would be more school districts having to go to referendum to accommodate slightly higher teacher salaries – but ultimately, it would be in the hands of taxpayers to approve those pay increases.
This example, however, displays the point at which rhetoric and governance depart. Now that they are in power, Democrats have to actually govern – and their inner compass is warning them of the public wrath they would incur should property taxes suddenly explode.[ii]
Conservatives are familiar with this concept – Republican candidates run with tough rhetoric on taxes and spending, yet historically have provided no real appreciable difference from the Democrats in either department. Even when Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, the state budget rolls on, picking up more government program beneficiaries like cat hair on a newly cleaned suit.
In fiscal matters, Democrats aren’t all that much different. For decades, Madison has been home to Wisconsin’s most strident and vocal liberals – one would expect the tax burden in the city to be astronomical. Yet when compared with the property tax rates of other Wisconsin municipalities, Madison is in the middle of the pack (helped, in large part, by high property values)[iii]. At some point, Madison liberals understand the detrimental effect excessive property taxes can have on a community, and budget accordingly. They know the suburbs will welcome their wealthy homeowners with open arms, should the tax levy be out of line with the rest of the county. So while your children may be more likely to learn Venezuelan basket weaving than math or science, at least you won’t be paying excessively for them to do so.
Political rhetoric provides the pugilistic fireworks that make government entertaining. Politics without hyperbole is about as fun as Lindsay Lohan without rehab. Yet when all is said and done, government always finds its balance – elected officials say as much as they can to get elected, and govern just enough not to get thrown out of office.