Actual state budget-cutting, as opposed to the past

I got into a Facebook argument last week (I know, you’re shocked — shocked! — to read that) about the reported $939 million transportation funding shortfall.

Supposed Republicans and conservatives have been advocating for either gas tax increases or vehicle registration fee increases on the grounds that the state supposedly is on the low end compared with other states on those taxes and fees. This is despite the fact state and local taxes remain among the highest in the U.S. despite almost six years of near-total Republican control of state government. (Not that Democrats know anything about cutting taxes or the size and scope of government.) This is also despite the fact that $939 million, an enormous amount of money to normal people, represents less than 3 percent of what state government spends in a year.

I am opposed to any tax increase that I would have to pay. I pay enough in taxes given the poor quality of government services in this state beyond emergency services. (Last week, for instance, one of those road projects we supposedly don’t have enough of in this state backed up sewer water into my basement. The contractor was, of course, the lowest bidder as chosen by city government where I live. A neighbor had her natural gas stop working after it was supposedly restored by the local monopoly energy provider. The local ambulance service has been driving its ambulances over Roads in Name Only, and guess who pays for EMS service?)

I also believe Republicans have not done nearly enough in this state to cut — not reduce the increase, but CUT — the size and scope of government in this state and all 3,120 units of it. Readers know that had state and local government been held in growth to inflation plus population growth since the late 1970s, state and local government would be half the size it is today. Republicans’ refusal to enact a constitutional Taxpayer Bill of Rights-like mechanism to restrict government growth continues to make you wonder if Republicans are really in favor of smaller government. The absence of constitutional controls in government arguably violates in spirit Article I, section 22 of the state Constitution:

The absence of constitutional controls in government arguably violates in spirit Article I, section 22 of the state Constitution:

The blessings of a free government can only be maintained by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

One example of failure to cut government is in the biggest area of expense for any business — staffing. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, Wisconsin has 72,000 state employees. During the Act 10 debate, the average cost (salary plus benefit costs) of a state employee to state government was $79,000. Assuming that number is roughly the same today, you could reach the $939 million threshold by eliminating fewer than 12,000 state employees.

(Side note: If you read my blog about Act 10 last week you may have read the accompanying whining comment about the result of Act 10 on public employees. Those would be the same people who still have much, much better benefits that still cost them much, much less than the benefits the people who pay their salaries receive. The complainer’s argument about the economic impact of government employees is overwhelmed by the economic impact of taxes. Government does not improve quality of life, in this state or anywhere else.)

Which positions should be cut, you ask? Every single position called “executive assistant” is a political appointee. There are also far too many positions called “communications officer” or the like, former journalists who do PR for their agency. I know some of them, but there are too many of them in state government. Start there. The higher salaries of the laid-off employees, the fewer you have to lay off.

I have also advocated, as readers know, combining the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state treasurer (and, more importantly, their staffs) into one position (to be voted on separately from governor), which would give lieutenant governors some actual executive responsibility beyond their own office. The fact that state legislators make almost $50,000 each is an abomination, and the fact they have staffers that make more money than that is even worse.

Beyond that, as readers know, I have advocated the end of spending tens of millions of dollars every year on buying land to take it off the property tax rolls and allow no one but acceptable users to use it (a list that does not include hunters, fishermen or motorized vehicle users). The Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Program is not merely an example of spending that should not take place, but spending that benefits very few people (that is, people who engage in “low-impact” recreation).

I also have advocated eliminating the State Patrol, which is not only redundant, but is not a state police force.I have had that position for a long time. (For those who think the State Patrol should be a state police force, ask yourself if you want state police run by attorney generals James Doyle or Peg Lautenschlager.) That may not be a popular position in these days of attacks on police by criminals, but other than run the weigh stations there is nothing the State Patrol does that county sheriff’s offices do not already do.

All of this would have to be accomplished through legislative heavy lifting and the constitutional amendment process. (Including a constitutional requirement that the state budget be balanced by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, required of all other units of government other than state government.) I have a hard time believing, given the statewide sturm und drang of Act 10 and Recallarama, that actually cutting state government would have resulted in more tumult than Act 10 did.

The argument I have made here repeatedly is that you cannot rely on a politician or a party to do what you want it to do when their desire to maintain political power gets in the way. (Which is why reducing political salaries to zero and establishing a one-term limit might be worth doing.) That reality is why it is insufficient merely to vote for Republicans to legislative offices. If they don’t do what they should do — CUT GOVERNMENT — they should be replaced by someone who will. Need $939 million for roads? Cut $939 million elsewhere.

 

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