Tax Talk — Are they listening?

I just did a quick surf of recent news stories and opinion pieces from around Wisconsin and it should be clear to all that our State’s current system of raising revenues and  and funding of essential services (including, but not limited to education services) isn’t working and isn’t sustainable.  Yet nobody in power is talking about this and they don’t appear to be listening either.  Keeping their heads in the sand isn’t going to change the reality and fiddling with things like Race to the Top while the state catches fire is more of the same in terms of questionable short term patches where long-term structural work is needed.

I’ll get to the clips below, but first a call to action.   The people we elected to state office promised to address these matters, but they haven’t and things just keep getting worse.  With tax collections down 12%, a state “budget reconciliation” is almost certain this Spring.  It will likely entail cuts in state services,  cuts in shared revenue to municipalities and Counties and cuts in state education aid.  Unless there is public pressure it will likely not include addressing the structural problems of an inadequate revenue system.  The only sustained and realistic work being done that puts the structural issues on the table is the Penny for Kids campaign to enact a dedicated sales tax for education.  If you are tired of the way things are going, learn more about the campaign and sign on as a supporter.  Penny for Kids is not the big fix, but it will stop some of the cuts and will move Wisconsin in the right direction.  If you are in Madison, the School Board will be considering a resolution in support on Monday (1/11/2010)  and it would be good to check in with them and let them know your thoughts.  For anyone in the state, contact your legislators and the Governor, write  a letter to the local paper…get active.

Here is what is happening and what people are saying.

In Oshkosh, “Crowd tells school board to raise taxes, not cut budget.”  Due to declining state revenues and an inadequate revenue cap, the Oshkosh  district must cut between $2 million and $3 million in programs and services form next year’s budget.  Because  even cuts of this size would require substantial property tax hikes, cuts in the $5 million range and not taxing to the maxare under consideration.  In a promising sign, the crowd was against these further cuts:

Those attending Tuesday’s meeting spoke out against every one of those options, saying the cuts would dismantle the district’s efforts to improve its quality of education. Most had a special interest such as preserving their home school, keeping equity and stability for students with special needs, maintaining small class sizes. The common thread tying almost all speakers together was a preference for raising taxes over saving money.

“We’ve been fighting to get the waste out of our schools for what, 10-15 years? There ain’t no more waste, folks,” said Oshkosh resident Thatcher Peterson, who has had two daughters graduate from the district.

Heidi Supple, parent of a third grader at Lakeside Elementary, said, “I don’t know about your stocks or your IRAs, but everything is down right now. If I’m going to invest in anything, I’m going to invest in our children.”

Madison and many others districts did not tax to the max last year.  This may become an annual controversy.  Without state level revenue reform it will spread.  Local School Boards are caught in the middle.

Fewer details, but similar issues are playing out in Neenah.

The Neenah school board faced a huge crowd Tuesday night after announcing nearly $3 million in budget cuts some parents fear are too steep.

The cuts include 26 jobs — 16 of them are teaching positions — eliminates a popular elementary strings and band program, reduces funds for special education, and limits arts options for eighth-graders.

The standing room only crowd on-hand was trying to persuade the school district not to make drastic cuts. Still, school board members say there’s just no money.

Penny Paiser-Wilson’s elementary music class is on the front line of the budget deficit. It’s one of many cuts being proposed by the Neenah Joint School District for the Fall of 2010.

And at the end of the story, this line:  “The school board president says the deficit is due to a drop in state funding.”  He got that right.  Statewide, state created problems call for statewide, state created solutions.  Raising local property taxes even more is not the answer.

According to Jonathan Krause, the Wisconsin Covenant — a promise of a college education to all those who qualify — is $2 billion in the red.  First they break the “New Wisconsin Promise” of  “A Quality Education for Every Child” along with numerous campaign promises about education, services, tax fairness and sustainability, but this wasn’t enough.  They had to raise kids’  hopes, get them to sign  a pledge and then break that pledge.   Nice.

It isn’t just education.  Library budgets are precarious as this letter from Stevens Point documentsChris Liebenthal reports on the decline in Milwaukee Co.  parks due to budget cuts here.   County budgets cut human services, cities struggle to plow the streets…and our state officials — the only ones who can do something about arresting this decline  — spend their time and our tax dollars making Cheese the official state snack.

There is a good overview from the Milwaukee Public Policy Forum.  They share my sense of urgency:

So what does this mean for state, county and municipal officials in Wisconsin? It means that the fundamental problems that have created persistent and growing structural deficits at the state, Milwaukee County and City of Milwaukee will not magically disappear and must be the subject of equally persistent focus in 2010.

Are our elected officials paying attention?

In closing, Dave Zweifel has a great column on the need for revenue reform.  I’m not sure I support all that is being proposed, but these ideas (and others, including Penny for Kids) deserve consideration — something there is no indication will happen unless the public pressure mounts.  Here is a long excerpt:

Gary Bahr of Belleville should have been elected to the state Assembly when he ran for the western Dane County seat back in 1994.

The retired small-town banker is one of the few who has consistently challenged our legislators to think outside the box about taxes. He rightfully insists that the state should completely scrap its present tax system and start over with one that makes sure everyone except the very poor pays a fair share of taxes.

Instead, state government keeps the same broken system in place, tinkering on the edges every budget year and in these hard economic times unconscionably pushing a bigger burden down to the local level, where the regressive property tax is already chasing people out of their homes. In the end, everything stays the same, even the deficits. And now comes the news that legislators have cut back on reimbursing local governments for the services they provide state buildings — a move that puts another $4 million on the backs of Madison property taxpayers alone.

For two decades now, Bahr has been urging the Legislature to take our public schools and county governments off the property tax. Taxes on property ought to be used strictly for municipal services like police, fire and garbage pickup. And everyone who benefits from the services, including churches and nonprofits, would pay property taxes, which he estimates would be about 85 percent less than they are now.

If you care about the state, our children and the future;  get involved, do something to make our elected officials back up their words with real positive action.  If they won’t,  help elected people who will.

Thomas J, Mertz.

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pennies for Kids, School Finance, Take Action

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