This morning’s Journal Sentinel contains several stories that highlight the way the issue of public revenue is driving the politics of our state.
First, the newspaper reported on a new state revenue projection from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau showing decreased tax collections will create a $143 million deficit by the end of the current budget. Directly related, the Attorney General, after consultation with the Governor, is planning to use $25.6 million of the state’s share of funds from the recent national foreclosure lawsuit settlement to offset a portion of this deficit. Walker justified this use of the money, saying:
Just like communities and individuals have been affected, the foreclosure crisis has had an effect on the state of Wisconsin, in terms of unemployment. . . . This will offset that damage done to the state of Wisconsin
While there is some validity to that statement, the use of the settlement money to plug a portion of our budget shortfall is an unfortunate step back towards the gimmicks and fund transfers routinely used by previous administrations. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, sounding much like a candidate for Governor, criticized the move saying: “not one dime should be used to fund the unbalanced state budget.” Though I am curious to hear how Barrett, whose execution problems I have documented in the past, would handle the shortfall, I agree with his position.
The problem is that the policy options Walker (or any other Governor) has are limited. The 2011-13 budget already cut K-12 school aids, shared revenue to local governments, and funding for higher education. The cuts to higher education were the subject of another Journal Sentinel story this morning. Administrators across the UW system say they are struggling to maintain quality in the face of revenue losses, UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell cites the loss of over 40 faculty members to other institutions as exhibit A in demonstrating the challenge he faces.
The perils of another strategy, finding lower-cost ways to deliver state services, shows up in another Journal Sentinel story this morning on the notable absence of a common school accountability system for all schools receiving public revenue in a new piece of education legislation. Erin Richards writes of the bill:
[I]t did not propose creating a statewide school accountability system that would hold all public schools and publicly funded private voucher schools to the same standards.
What is not mentioned in the story is that an identical public, private, and charter school accountability system is functionally impossible, and undesirable. The presence of religion in private choice schools for example requires that the schools spend (and document the purpose of) every dollar they receive annually through the choice program so as not to have a surplus that could be seen as aiding religion. In comparison, having and carrying over a surplus in a public school district may actually be a sign of responsible budgeting. And the heart of the charter school concept is a third party authorizer that serves as the accountability agent. A common accountability system undermines the very idea of a charter school.
More important, if choice and charter face identical public school rules and regulations, there is every reason to expect them to be nothing more than poorly funded public schools that may save the state money, but not increase educational quality. What is needed is a way to ensure all of our schools are accountable and transparent, not identical regulation.
The straightforward short-term answer to a revenue shortfall is to simply raise taxes. This is a political non-starter and a bad idea for the long-term competiveness of our state. The easier said than executed long-term solution to Wisconsin’s revenue problem is a combination of policies conducive to economic growth, new approaches to local service delivery, and responsible state budgeting. And of course, Wisconsin’s toxic state of political discourse must be addressed.