John Smart on the State Budget

I’ve had the pleasure of working with John on Wisconsin Allaince for Excellent Schools matters. He get’s it right.

Thomas J. Mertz

“The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) set Friday, Sept. 28 as the deadline for getting a final 2007-09 state budget through the state Legislature in order for the department to have time to run the complicated equalization aid calculation and inform districts of their 2007-08 aid by Oct. 15 as required by statute. If the Legislature fails to meet that deadline, the DPI will have little choice but to use the 2006-07 equalization aid numbers.”

The preceding is from today’s email to members from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, and points up the serious problem that we’re facing in our schools due to the legislature’s utter failure to responsibly deal with our state’s budget.

Today I also attended a meeting in Mosinee of the new steering committee for the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, followed later by a joint meeting of the school boards of Park Falls and Butternut, which are negotiating a possible consolidation. Whenever the subject of the legislature and the budget came up, and believe me, it came up, it was met with hoots of derision!

The following is my most recent commentary from THE-BEE, for your edification.

John Smart

Commentary by John Smart
The Budget
THE-BEE, Phillips WI
Opinion Column
Last updated: Thursday, September 06th, 2007 09:03:09 AM

Definition: A budget is a description of a financial plan. It is a list of estimates of revenues to and expenditures by an agent for a stated period of time.

We all have budgets. Most of us don’t write them down, but we know how much income we have and how much we can spend in order to not go into debt – too far, anyway. We plan for necessities like food, shelter and basic health care, and then determine what else we might be able to afford — like maybe a vacation trip or a new boat. And, if we do go into debt, to buy a house or a vehicle or whatever, we plan how we’re going to pay that debt off.

Governments have budgets, too. In Wisconsin, as in most states, we have a biennial budget, a plan for two years, which means that every two years the governor proposes and the legislature disposes, often essentially writing their own version.

But the governor of Wisconsin has a very powerful veto option, which allows him [or her] to alter the budget by deleting and/or rearranging language, so the budget can change again in the governor’s approval phase. [Many politicians noisily disapprove of this powerful veto option — usually the ones who are not in power!]

Also, in most states and the federal government, the budget must be passed in a timely manner or the government simply grinds to a halt. In Wisconsin, however, we have a provision that allows the government to just continue on, following the old budget, while deliberations continue. And that’s what’s happening now.

Gov. Jim Doyle presented his version of the budget to the Legislature in February, and the Joint Finance Committee of the Senate and the Assembly held public hearings and private deliberations and eventually passed their version in June. They sent that budget to the full Senate and Assembly for passage. The new budget for 2007 through 2009 was supposed to be passed by July 1st — but it wasn’t.

As of now, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that does not have a budget. [Illinois and California passed theirs recently, leaving us all alone.] We are becoming a national joke.

The State Senate passed its version of the budget, built on the governor’s and the Joint Finance Committee’s proposals, and adding their own ideas. But then, the Assembly sailed off on its own course, passing a very different budget indeed. These two budgets have almost nothing in common. They seem to have come from two different states!

So, they formed another committee to somehow blend these two into one workable budget that can then be passed by both bodies and returned to Gov. Doyle, who will work his own magic on it. One good point for us, up here in the Northwoods, is that two of our own, Senators Russ Decker [D-Weston] and Bob Jauch [D-Poplar], serve on this committee. For a change, we won’t be dictated to by the more populous parts of the state!

But — in the meanwhile — our local schools and our great state university can’t finalize their own budgets because they don’t know what the state budget will eventually allow them. The same uncertainty is true for municipalities and other state entities.

Assembly Republicans have suggested appropriations that would negatively impact our local school districts, that would starve the UW Law School into oblivion, that would cut state funding for the UW Extension, seriously affecting our excellent public radio and television services as well as other Extension programs like 4H.

Healthy Wisconsin, the health care reform plan proposed by Senate Democrats, is under intense debate, with groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce [against] and Citizen Action of Wisconsin [in favor] battling it out in competing public meetings around the state. This traveling circus includes a giant statue of a pig, bought and paid for by an out-of-state, right-leaning organization called Americans for Prosperity, that is carted around the state to protest what they see as gross expenditures.

A Town Hall Meeting on Healthy Wisconsin will be held on Sept. 17 at the Taylor County Community Center on the fairgrounds in Medford starting at 6:00 p.m.. The special guest will be State Senator Kathleen Vinehout [D-Alma], one of the authors of the Healthy Wisconsin plan. Please come and learn more about the plan.

Environmentalists are alarmed that the Assembly Republicans want to slash the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which buys up forest land that is being sold off, primarily by large timber interests, in order to preserve such land for recreational use by future generations.

The Legislature’s Republicans are digging in their heels, however, and tell their constituencies that they are just trying to keep from raising taxes. But, of course, they tried to get sales tax relief for people who deal in gold bullion — doubtless a huge number of needy Wisconsinites. They also removed the governor’s proposed tax increases on cigarettes and the big oil companies.

Wherever you stand on these issues, there is a reality here that should be addressed: the Democrats hold the upper hand. We have a Democratic governor and State Senate. Republicans control the Assembly, but only by a three vote margin. The budget will probably go the Democrats’ way no matter how long they drag it out.

Clearly the Republican strategy is to talk loudly about cutting taxes and programs, which will appeal to their own conservative constituency. Perhaps this is a good long-term political plan, but it does little to advance the state’s immediate needs.

Do we really want to abolish the UW Law School or public broadcasting? Do we really want sales tax relief for gold bullion investors and big oil companies? Don’t we really want good schools and health care for those who need it — and a workable budget in place?

Remember, the fiscal year started on July 1st.

John Smart lives in Park Falls, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, the UN Association of the USA and Citizens for Global Solutions. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan from 1995 through 1998, serves on the Park Falls Board of Education and chairs the Democratic Party of Price County.

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Filed under AMPS, Budget, School Finance

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