It’s something of a rite of passage for teenagers to be left home alone for a weekend while Mom and Dad go out of town. Years of earned trust are put to the ultimate test: As soon as word gets out that the parents are gone, the peer pressure to host a drinking party can be overwhelming.
If it can be withstood, then the kids have proven that they can be responsible adults. If not, then it’s difficult for Mom and Dad to ever trust them alone again.
This year’s biennial budget process has proven to be a similar test for Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, as for the first time they have been left home alone without former Governor Scott Walker keeping them from hosting a spending party.
They haven’t exactly earned Dad’s trust.
Left to their own devices following Walker’s defeat in November, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) have approved a staggering $1.88 billion on new construction projects. Not only is that nearly double the $1 billion in new construction spending in the 2017-2019 budget (Walker’s last), it tops even the previous record of $1.7 billion spent by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle.
That’s right: Left with the house to themselves, Republicans managed to outspend the guy who left Wisconsin with a $3.6 billion structural deficit.
To be sure, Walker’s budgets weren’t nearly as austere as his political opponents made them out to be—state spending steadily increased during his term—but he always kept the bigger spending legislators in his party from indulging their basest instincts.
He was the only adult keeping the kegs out of his kitchen. Now that he’s gone, though, it’s party time.
Governor Evers proposed spending $1.07 billion on building projects in the University of Wisconsin System. The Republican-led JFC approved $1.03 billion. Evers wanted to borrow $902 million to pay for it. Republicans approved $857 million—just four percent less.
Evers proposed spending an additional $537.7 million on transportation. Republicans approved $484 million—only ten percent less. They also increased K-12 education spending by $500 million and Department of Health Services spending by $1.63 billion.
As the MacIver Institute reported earlier this month, they even bragged about how their health and welfare “budget surpasses, in some cases doubling…Evers’ budget proposal.”
Fiscal conservatives should rightly question why Republicans would ever crow about outspending a Democrat, while anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent Wisconsin history should question the sanity of anyone of any party who outspends Jim Doyle.
Though Walker himself boasted of dramatically increasing education spending in his final budget and was perhaps over-reliant on bonding to fund ballooning transportation costs, he was always a fiscally sane Dad who kept the kids in line. With him out of the house, they’re running wild and risking the legacy they built together.
In the Walker era, legislative Republicans passed quite possibly the single greatest state spending reform in American history in Act 10 and then followed it up with Right to Work legislation and a partial reform of prevailing wage requirements.
Now they’re, as even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noticed, “fighting on Evers’ turf” by their focusing “their funding increases into Evers’ priorities — health care, education and transportation.”
Of course, JFC Republicans are quick to point out that they also passed a $536 million tax cut without adopting Evers’ plan of simultaneously raising taxes on businesses and retirees, but this is akin to a teenager promising to clean the house after Mom and Dad came home early and found all of the empty beer bottles: The damage is already done.
If, left to their own devices, Wisconsin Republicans can no longer be trusted to hold the line on spending—or to at least not try so desperately to outspend Wisconsin Democrats—then why should Wisconsin conservatives believe that they can continue to be responsible stewards of state funds?
Hopefully, adults in the full Senate and Assembly will rein in the JFC’s spending binge and adopt a more fiscally responsible budget than one that could potentially run a structural deficit as high as $1.5 billion over the next two years.
If they don’t, there’s a good chance that voters won’t leave the kids in charge of the house again.
One irony here is that Doyle’s last budget included several Doyle line-item vetoes of profligate spending of his own party. It was nevertheless so grossly out of balance that it torpedoed the state’s economy, already weakened by the Great Recession (thanks to the 2007–08 Democratic-controlled Congress). Ponder spending that is too high for even a Democratic governor.
The other thing, of course, is that this budget should be impossible and illegal because this state should have constitutional, not merely statutory, controls on spending and tax increases. Fiscal responsibility is the second most important thing government does, after preservation of our constitutional rights. Republicans failed to enact permanent (or as permanent as it gets in government) spending and tax controls through the constitutional-amendment process.