The polite warning quoted in the title to this entry is in reference to healthcare obligations threatening the budgets of local governments. The quote comes from Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance President Todd Berry at the end of a Journal Sentinel story touting the strength of Wisconsin’s state pension system.
First, the main subject of the story is worth celebrating. By all accounts, the WRS has been well managed by government. The health of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) gives our state a competitive advantage over states with significant unfunded pension obligations.
But, as Berry alludes, unfunded healthcare obligations still need to be addressed to ensure the future quality of local government. The reason is straightforward, as I detailed earlier this week (and as WPRI has detailed repeatedly) growing health care costs reduce the amount of revenue available for basic services.
In school districts this means fewer resources are available for things like teacher salaries. In cities and counties this means fewer resources for garbage pick-up, parks, transportation, libraries, public art, public health and any number of services that contribute to the quality of life of a place.
Call me a big-government advocate, but local government in particular has a role far greater than simply creating a social safety net; people want to live in place where government is responsive to the basic needs of residents. The ability of government to fulfill that role is being diminished annually by cost pressures (most notably retiree health insurance) that are totally unrelated to service delivery.
There is no one perfect answer and the public certainly has an obligation to fulfill promises made to public employees. However, there needs to be a long-term solution or the quality of local government services will erode. The necessary first step is talking about the problem openly and honestly.