Over the past couple of days, you may have heard about the “Refocus Wisconsin” project that we’ve undertaken here at WPRI. If you’re like most people, you thought “just what is this newfangled ‘Refocus Wisconsin’ project?” (Likely in exactly those words, before twirling your mustache and complaining about Chester A. Arthur’s civil service reforms.)
Well, thanks for asking. The project is essentially an attempt to do the most exhaustive study of Wisconsin government to date. We’re taking a look at our state, soup-to-nuts.
We’ve hired s0me well-known national writers to aid us in looking back at what’s happened to Wisconsin over the past 25 years, and where the state needs to go. The final work product from the project will serve as a blueprint for what needs to happen to Wisconsin to regain its national prestige – from government, to jobs, to culture.
We kicked the project off by issuing a poll conducted by Ken Goldstein several weeks ago. Rather than being a typical election season poll, this survey intended to really get at the attitudes Wisconsinites have towards their state (also known as “the stuff that really matters.”) The poll is an extensive poll of 3,300 Wisconsinites from around the state – and great lengths were taken to include cell phone users, which gives our poll an accuracy within the City of Milwaukee that other polls struggle to match. All the poll’s results are available in the “Polling” section of the Refocus Wisconsin website.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the poll in this story on Sunday, focusing on the fact that 68% of Wisconsinites believe all the best and brightest students leave to work in other states.
Also, Ken Goldstein appeared on “Up Front with Mike Gousha” to discuss the poll’s results.
WPRI’s Mike Nichols appeared on “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” to debate the poll’s results with other panel members:
As I mentioned, a significant portion of the Refocus Wisconsin project will deal with how Wisconsin has changed over the past several decades. Milwaukee historian John Gurda has written a paper for the project that clearly lays out the choices before us. It’s called “Leaving the Middle Behind: Wisconsin at a Turning Point,” and trust me – if there’s anything you want to read about Wisconsin politics this week, this is it.
To check in on the progress of the project, also feel free to follow us on Twitter at @refocuswi and on Facebook here.
Filed under: Education — Christian Schneider @ 3:30 pm
Today, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured an article detailing plans put forth by Wisconsin’s gubernatorial candidates to move more public employees into the state employee health plan:
Madison — Two leading candidates for governor say they could save taxpayers up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year by revamping the way schools and local governments buy health insurance for more than 200,000 public employees around Wisconsin.
The plans are the centerpiece of proposals to cut government spending by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a Republican, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat. The changes could save taxpayers substantial sums, though the saving could still fall short of what the candidates suggest.
This was an idea pitched in 2005 by WPRI in this report, which found that if Wisconsin only moved public teachers out of their own insurance plan, the state could save $100 million. From the report:
If Wisconsin public school teachers were allowed to select a health insurance plan in a manner similar to other state employees, there would be benefits to both teachers and taxpayers. Almost 90% of the school districts would lower their insurance costs. The total savings across the state is projected to be over $100 million. If this were used to increase teacher salaries, the average teacher in Wisconsin could receive a salary increase of $1,448 without any additional money coming from taxpayers.
Health insurance coverage for public school teachers in Wisconsin is determined through the collective bargaining process. This insurance coverage afforded teachers is the fastest growing portion of the budgets of many Wisconsin school districts. Unlike most government entities and private businesses, school districts rarely competitively bid health insurance coverage. The Wisconsin Education Association Insurance Corporation (WEAIC) writes health insurance coverage on teachers in approximately 78% of the districts in the state. In most districts, the carrier has been chosen through a no-bid process. This market dominance of WEAIC raises the disconcerting question of whether this dual role of insurer and labor union permits WEAIC to exert market power and charge premiums above what they would be in a competitive situation.
Filed under: Elections — Christian Schneider @ 12:36 pm
Wisconsin’s own Stephen Hayes takes a look at Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker in the most recent Weekly Standard. Much of it will be familiar to those in Wisconsin who have been following the race – but an exchange Hayes had with Graeme Zielinski of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is most telling:
Graeme Zielinski, a former political reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who left his job earlier this year to become the spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic party, wants me to know that Walker’s candidacy is based on lies and half-truths. “Generally, it’s our position that Scott Walker isn’t truthful about his record on just about anything.”
“When Scott Walker was in the legislature, he voted several times for budgets that included studies on high speed rail,” Zielinski explained. “If he was such an opponent of high speed rail, he wouldn’t have been in a tough election fight before he brought it up. He’s been a Johnny-come-lately to this.”
As it happens, I’d just read the transcript of an editorial board meeting with the Journal Sentinel from 2002 featuring Walker and his first opponent for the county executive seat, Jim Ryan. The two men agreed on many of the urgent issues facing the county, but one major area of disagreement concerned infrastructure. Ryan favored funding for a rail-based system in Milwaukee County. Walker did not.
He made two arguments against it—priorities and costs. “There are an incredibly large number of other infrastructure-based projects on the table that directly tie in the economic development that far outweighs the seriousness of just this rail-based system.” Walker was worried that federal subsidies would not cover the entire cost of the project and would, in any case, leave the county responsible for operating costs it could not afford. He makes exactly the same arguments today about high-speed rail.
So I pressed Zielinski about Walker’s supposed votes for high-speed rail.
“Was that one of those situations where he cast the vote for a huge budget so you can’t separate it out?”
“Yeah,” he acknowledged. “Absolutely.”
“So is it your view that the principled thing to do would have been to vote ‘no’ on the overall budget because it included studies on high-speed rail?”
“Well, he—he took some affirmative votes in committee that allowed—procedurally allowed those studies to go forward.”
That didn’t sound like a big deal to me, but if the spokesman for the Democratic party thought enough of it to make it his leading critique of Walker, I wanted to know more. Zielinski said he would send me details about those votes and then shifted to a broader critique, attacking Walker from the right.
“On spending, he’s increased spending by $380 million—more than any candidate in this race. On taxes, he raised taxes by 40 million bucks while he’s been here.”
I asked him about that number. “He raised taxes by 40 million bucks. The tax levy has gone up by $40 million.”
Of course, those are two different claims. The first one is false; the second one is true. The tax levy has indeed increased, but only because the county board repeatedly raised taxes over Walker’s veto. I pointed that out to Zielinski.
“He signed those budgets. He signed those budgets.”
“But they were passed over his veto.”
A four-second pause and then:
“Spending went up by 380 million bucks. And if his argument is ‘I couldn’t do anything,’ then how can he do something about high-speed rail? ‘Well, I was helpless about increasing spending by 35 percent but I’m not helpless on high-speed rail.’ That doesn’t square.”
Zielinski then warmed to the theme of making Milwaukee County sound something like Rome, or at least Detroit. “The parks are in ruins. The county buildings are in ruins. Services are in ruins.”
Of course, when things go wrong in Milwaukee County, it’s Scott Walker’s fault. When things go wrong in the City of Milwaukee, it’s never Tom Barrett’s fault.
Filed under: Education — Christian Schneider @ 9:52 pm
On Tuesday night, Wisconsin State Representative Jason Fields appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s show to discuss the Milwaukee teachers’ union push to have Viagra included under their health care packages. Here’s the video.
Filed under: Education — Christian Schneider @ 12:05 pm
According to a new study by the Education Trust, three University of Wisconsin schools rank in the top 25 public colleges and universities with the largest white-black graduation-rate gaps.
The UW-Milwaukee is 6th highest in the nation, with a 28.2% gap between white and black degree earners. The UW-Whitewater ranks 9th, with a gap of 27.3%. And the UW-Madison, which has implemented several high-profile diversity plans over the past decade, ranks 19th with a 23.3% graduation difference between white and black students.
The UW-Milwaukee also makes the list of top 25 schools with large gaps between white and Hispanic students as well. UW-Milwaukee is 6th on the list with a white-Hispanic graduation disparity of 20%.
As both studies point out, these graduation gaps aren’t inevitable. For instance, North Carolina’s several of public universities serve a substantial number of minority students, yet graduation gaps are virtually nonexistent. (In several cases, blacks out-graduate whites.)
These schools provide an opportunity to see what they’re doing right. The UW should take notice.
Filed under: Elections — Christian Schneider @ 3:12 pm
So Ron Johnson has a new ad out. Here it is:
Pretty straightforward, nothing earth-shattering.
But I always get a kick out of the part of Johnson’s ads where he has to say “I approved this message.” As we know, the only reason Johnson has to waste those four seconds is because of Russ Feingold.
The “I approved this message” provision was passed as a part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law in 2002. In fact, it is one of the few portions of Feingold’s signature piece of legislation that hasn’t been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has, on at least three occasions, struck down major pieces of Feingold’s bill as unconstitutional restrictions of free political speech.
But the obnoxious “stand by your ad” provision remains. As if, for some reason, we couldn’t figure out that an ad featuring Ron Johnson standing in front of a camera talking to us, with the words “Paid For By Ron Johnson for Senate, Inc., Approved by Ron Johnson” at the bottom of the screen, was, in fact, approved by Ron Johnson. Has a candidate ever spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad for which he only partially approved? Imagine seeing an ad that began, “I’m Ron Johnson, and I’m pretty sure I approve of at least half of this message.”
Of course, McCain-Feingold was supposed to root out corruption from the political system. I challenge anyone to explain to me how costing a challenger four seconds of his political ad to state the obvious has prevented a single act of corruption or underhandedness in politics. (Didn’t anyone tell Congressman Charlie Rangel that Feingold meant business?)
If I were running Johnson’s campaign, I would make this a point of one of my ads. Begin an ad by saying “I’m Ron Johnson, and I approve of this message.” Then go on to mention that you have to say that disclaimer because Russ Feingold was too busy worrying about micromanaging what is said in political ads and not worried enough about all the jobs Wisconsin has been hemorrhaging. Then pivot to the economic talking points of your choosing. Easy as that.
And if I were Russ Feingold, I would work a little harder to find at least one living person who has benefited from the stimulus plan to put in my ads. At least, thanks to his own law, we now know he approves of creating jobs for fictional people.
Filed under: Elections — Christian Schneider @ 12:15 pm
Fundraising for a statewide campaign is always tough. The same group of donors is asked to give, and give, and give again – all to help candidates that likely don’t have a chance of winning.
But Mark Neumann has changed all that with a novel new fundraising appeal.
On Friday, Neumann, who has turned his once-promising gubernatorial campaign into a longshot candidacy worthy of a Fellini movie, debated primary frontrunner Scott Walker. The interview took place on radio talk show host Jeff Wagner’s show and was broadcast from the Wisconsin State Fair grounds.
Shortly after the debate, I received an e-mail from Neumann’s campaign, with the subject simply saying “Neumann Wins Debate.”
(I always get a kick out of these debate “victory” declarations. As I have said a hundred times, we should do debates more like WWE wrestling, where the moderator picks a winner, hands them the belt, then they get to hit the loser with a folding chair.)
The e-mail was addressed as follows:
Mark Neumann won today’s debate with Scott Walker at the Wisconsin State Fair! The debate was aired on radio 620 WTMJ and hosted by Jeff Wagner. It proved three important points, heading into these final weeks before the September 14 primary.
And off it went, explaining how Neumann supposedly destroyed Scott Walker in the debate. (I actually listened to the debate, and it was a bit of a snoozer. Needless to say, I think Scott Walker will be able to show his face again in public.)
But after all the talking points, Neumann’s press release ended up with this line:
P.S. Mark Neumann is a successful businessman who has a conservative plan to cut spending and cut taxes to create jobs. If you like to, please help us continue the momentum from today’s debate victory and donate $5, $15, $25, or $50 by clicking here.
There it is – a novel new approach to fundraising; don’t just ask the “press” to cover your campaign, go ahead and ask them for cash. Hey – reporters and newsrooms seem to be doing pretty well financially these days, why not just throw a casual fundraising appeal on the end of your press releases, too?
I’d love it if Neumann showed up on Mike Gousha’s show on Sunday morning, and after his interview, the on-air closing goes like this:
Gousha: “Mark Neumann, candidate for governor, thank you for joining us this morning.”
Neumann: “Pleasure to be here, Mike – and oh, while I have you here, can I maybe get 50 bucks? And do you validate parking?”
Gousha: “Please get off my set.”
See Neumann’s press release/fundraising letter hybrid here.
I hate them. You hate them. Countless other thrill seekers hate them too. They are the people who, after paying for admission fees and greasy food, decide to spend exorbitant sums more to get themselves to the front of the line without waiting like the rest of us.
And it is all thanks to a creation that has spread to amusement parks across the nation: the speed pass. This simple piece of paper is actually an ingenious business invention. It does not produce extra costs for the park, aside from the paper and ink they need to print the passes, since you can only get a certain amount of rides in during the hours of operation. Yet there is sufficient demand to warrant its high price. It is entirely profit. I suspect that it is also a college fund for all of the children of the park owners and managers.
They work well for public relations too. I once got to experience the magic that is the speed pass after getting stuck on a raft ride while the raft that had just finished was being repaired. On a hot summer day, this was not the worst fate, although we did not say so when the ride operator pulled the pad of speed passes out of his pocket and started to walk our way. The true magic commenced when we used our speed passes to get to the front of the line for the Batman ride. This ride has a line that normally requires an excruciating wait in a setting meant to resemble a dirty, wet, back alley of Gotham City while you listen to sound effects that play on a loop as you walk in a loop. For an hour.
The speed pass seems to make sense for the amusement park industry. But does it also work for government? Scott Walker states that he would be open to a speed-pass-esque idea for Wisconsin highways as a way to help fund the transportation budget. The plan could be to open lanes where busses and carpools drive for free to anyone else who purchases their very own highway “speed pass.”
If this plan is going to be seriously considered in the future, there are a few issues the decision makers need to take into account. First, like the amusement park owners, they need to be able to correctly price these passes. They will have to be fairly expensive to deter too many people from purchasing them and making the speed lane into just another clogged space, at which point no one will want to spend the extra money.
Second, they will need to consider the incentives at stake. Bus and carpool lanes encourage lower fuel use, lower congestion, and lower parking needs. Opening such lanes to single-occupant vehicles reduces these incentives and may hurt the metro system revenue if riding the bus does not get people to their destination on time. Third, they will need to consider if such an undertaking is worth the payoffs. The Department of Transportation budget is $6.8 billion. Of that, the budget for state highways is $3.5 billion. It is questionable of the cost of enacting, producing, and enforcing the speed pass use will have a significantly positive effect on the DoT budget.
Fortunately, Walker has other plans. He also mentions that he is in favor of banning raids on the DoT’s funds. This would hopefully force the state to look to other measures, such as spending cuts, to balance the budget, rather than relying on last-minute creative accounting. Ultimately, the state does need to use more reliable accounting practices if it wants to maintain a stable and balanced budget. Many of these tricks represent a speed pass to a “balanced” budget. But we should not be so eager to use them since, just as on those roller coasters, they take you on a vicious loop that just leaves you in the same place as you started out.
Filed under: Budget,Debt — Christian Schneider @ 3:48 pm
In November of 2007, I issued a WPRI report warning of Wisconsin’s growing use of debt. (It’s a good read, especially if you’re looking to cure your insomnia.)
This week, Moody’s Investor Service issued their own nationwide report detailing the massive amount of debt states are taking on in order to bolster their lagging tax receipts. Wisconsin is no exception – and has issued debt at a much quicker rate than other states.
As I point out in my report, Wisconsin state government wasn’t even allowed to issue debt until 1969, when voters amended the state’s constitution to allow the legislature to issue bonds. Shortly after ratification of the constitutional amendment, Wisconsin ranked 40th in the nation in debt per capita. According to the Moody’s report this week, Wisconsin is now 12th in the nation in debt per capita, barely behind notorious big-spending states like New York, California, New Jersey, and Illinois.
According to the report, Wisconsin’s $1,720 in debt per capita puts the state $423 per capita above the national average (skewed slightly high due to the absolutely obscene per capita debt of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York), and $784 more than the national median of $936 of debt per capita.
Furthermore, the trend in Wisconsin has been to issue more debt than we can afford. As detailed in the Moody’s report, Wisconsin debt has risen from 2.8% of personal income in 1998 to 4.6% in 2010. That’s an increase of 64% in 12 years, and ahead of every other neighboring state (Illinois is next at 4.4%, while Michigan is at 2.1%, Minnesota 2.4%, and Iowa at 0.2%.) The national median is 2.5%
Your average citizen might then ask, “so what? What difference does a higher debt burden make to me?”
A couple things:
First, debt service is the first draw on the state’s general fund. It gets paid off before the state spends a single cent on schools, the environment, corrections, or anything else. Obviously, the more debt the state takes on, the higher these payments will be, leaving less money to fund these other programs – although the state can sometimes refinance to take advantage of better bond rates, it can’t just reduce debt service. (Although sometimes they will restructure the bonds to pay more over a longer period of time in order to save money in the short term – which is terrible budgeting.)
Secondly, bonding for ongoing spending programs makes those programs more expensive. Instead of paying a teacher’s salary for one year, you’re paying for that teacher’s salary for one year, plus interest over the course of twenty to thirty more years.
Additionally, having an excessive debt load can possibly force the bond rating agencies to mark down the state’s rating, which gives its bonds a higher rate. In other words, the more debt the state has, the more it has to pay to pay them back. Too much debt is a red flag to the credit agencies – as are things like structural imbalances and low reserve funds. (Wisconsin fares extremely poorly on all three counts, which is why its credit rating has fallen within the past few years.)
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Moody’s analysis is unclear as to which Wisconsin state bonds it uses in its analysis. Some bonds are funded with tax money, some are funded by user fees, some are backed by the state’s moral obligation, and some are not. When added together, all these bonds in Wisconsin in 2007 added up to $3,476 per capita – and that doesn’t even count local debt, such as municipal and school construction.
So when the new governor takes office in January of 2011, he’ll have the state’s large debt burden to thank for much of the state’s shabby fiscal condition. And the public will eventually feel the pain for all the spending that debt propped up over the past decade.