Smart Budget Decisions Require Input from Everyone

Early Saturday morning, the Assembly passed its version of the two-year state budget. Action now moves to the Senate. While it is expected we will vote on a budget package by week’s end, much work must be done before that vote happens.

The Governor’s budget made historic funding cuts to programs affecting all of us. As the budget moved through the process, some cuts were restored.  Then new revenue numbers showed even less money coming into the state which meant even deeper cuts or increases in taxes.

Legislators are very reluctant to raise taxes. A cigarette tax and a tax on oil company profits are still under debate but no general increase in sales tax or income tax is part of the discussion.

As I prepare for Senate budget deliberations, I think about balancing the needs of the state and the needs of our region. 

The state spends most of its general budget in just five ways; schools, health & human services, corrections, local government and higher education.

As I consider the funding cuts made to all those programs and others, I wanted to know exactly what the impact of less money meant to western Wisconsin.  To help gather those details, I sent emails and started making phone calls

The answers I received were swift and disturbing. School superintendents and board members said cuts to schools were unfair and fell disproportionately on those schools with fewer students.

“Will large suburban school districts around Madison and Milwaukee be asked to make the proportional sacrifice,” one superintendent asked.

“We will make draconian cuts to stave off bankruptcy,” wrote another.

“We simply do not have any positions left to cut and still provide students in our district with an appropriate education,” said a third superintendent.

Larger school districts are not immune. Eau Claire faces a $4.1 million shortfall. To get about half the way to resolving their financial problems, they were forced to cut positions impacting 50 people.

Many of our school districts have faced serious budget problems for years.  Many have spent down reserves and lost referendums.  

Like schools, county government officials tell me costs are rising faster than revenue. Shared Revenue – the money sent from the state to our local counties and municipalities hasn’t been increased in14 years. Tax collections are down – in one local county, tax collections in April are down by nearly half from last year.

As I look to find ways in this budget to save money, health care is a good place to start.

State spending on health care is second only to education. Many benefit: low income people through the BadgerCare program, seniors through the SeniorCare program and Medicaid helps fund care of our frail elderly, mentally ill, and developmentally disabled.

Many of the problems with the entire health care system are mirrored in state programs. Too much money is spent on administration. Not enough is spent on prevention, wellness and primary care.  And spend dollars wisely to care for and protect the frail, elderly and those most in need.

Health care reform can’t wait until the economy improves when we know making needed changes improves the lives of people and lowers costs. Children in our state can’t wait until the economy improves to when we know education is the key to success. Even in this difficult budget year, the spending plan should reflect the basic needs of all people, regardless where they live.