One side of the room was upset about cuts to programs. The other side was unhappy about tax increases. I thought to myself, “Maybe you could get together, decide what you want to do and then let me know.”
Decisions about the state budget dominate nearly every conversation these days. People are unhappy about taxes at the same time they ask me for assistance. Every new person who receives assistance is a new ‘ask’ to spend state money.
The down turn in the economy means less money for states. Forty-two states face serious budget deficits; Wisconsin at nearly $6 billion deficit. People losing their jobs don’t have income. People facing tough times don’t buy things. This adds up to a lot less money for the state - at a time when more people need help.
Last week I listened intently to about sixteen hours of testimony given to the Joint Finance Committee when the budget committee held hearings in Sparta and Eau Claire. Hundreds of people came to voice their opinions.
I heard from citizens concerned about cuts to town roads, courts and local law enforcement; nursing homes, conservation programs, school lunch programs, shelters for abused family members, help for the disabled, the blind and the homeless. People were unhappy about closing the Department of Motor Vehicle and Natural Resource Centers; others were unhappy about closing the State Patrol offices and the Rest Areas along the highway.
Many school board members and school superintendents talked about the problems with rising costs and less state money. “We’ve cut 41 positions and we are still cutting but we can’t do any more with less,” one school board member said. Teachers, programs and building maintenance must be cut. Chancellors and students are concerned about cuts to universities.
At the UW Eau Claire, budget cuts total over $7 million following almost $6 million each budget since 2003. “We are doing all we can to operate efficiently,” the Chancellor Levin-Stankevich told committee members.
And I heard from people upset with taxes. Red shirted Kwik Trip folks were unhappy about the Governor’s proposed tax on oil companies; local government officials were unhappy with proposed fee increases; many were unhappy with any type of tax.
The difference of opinion was striking. For example, one man shared how a local center serving the disabled lost more than half of its funding. “This threatens the very fabric of our program,” said the man in the wheelchair. The very next speaker said “Government has enough of my money. How much of my money is enough for you? I am opposed to any new taxes.”
Really we have only two choices: cut programs or increase taxes. The Governor tried to do both. Forty-percent of the budget deficit is made up in cuts to programs. Another twenty-percent is increases in taxes and fees. The remainder of the budget hole is filled with federal dollars.
Tensions run high. Accusations and misinformation add to already difficult decisions. Hyper partisan attacks distort facts and give false choices. We can’t stop taxing unless we want government to disappear. We can change who pays and how much. And we can change what we buy and how much. But the decisions are not easy.
Are we taxing and spending too much? What programs are we willing to sacrifice?
What does our community value?
State Senator Kathleen Vinehout serves the 31st Senate District. She can be contacted by mail at Senator Kathleen Vinehout, P.O. Box 7882 Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7882 by phone at 877-763-6636 (toll free) or email at Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov