Our economy is beginning to recover. Tax receipts have improved. As lawmakers grapple with the state’s two-year budget, forecasts show nearly $2 billion more in tax revenue.
Tax money goes largely to pay for schools, health care, prisons and courts, colleges and universities, and local government. These “big five” make up almost 80 percent of what the state buys with the general fund checkbook. This checkbook shows a notable improvement in financial health.
Despite the “we’re broke” line, Gov. Scott Walker proposed a two-year budget with slightly more spending than former Gov. Jim Doyle’s last budget.
Walker chose to make big cuts to the “big five,” especially schools, local government, tech colleges and the UW. He used increases in public employees’ contributions to health insurance and retirement to pay for some of the cuts. But local officials tell me they still face big losses. At a time when the pool of funds used for these things is bigger, where did this money go?
The governor addresses a transportation revenue problem (less income from vehicle registration fees and gas taxes) by raiding the general fund to the tune of more than a quarter billion dollars.
Money goes to new programs including the private-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; increases in contracts; expansion of private charter schools and choice school vouchers; tax credits; and other tax changes. The governor’s only tax increase is for those of modest means. Changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Exemption will increase taxes on lower-income families, particularly those with more children. On the other hand, tax reductions totaling $82 million go mainly to those with higher incomes.
People contacted me concerned about threats to education, local government, SeniorCare, and services for the disabled and veterans. They wonder what other options exist. With people’s concerns in mind, I propose changes to the governor’s budget.
Take a balanced approach. Eliminate the tax cuts going to the most wealthy; don’t increase taxes on those of modest means; don’t create or expand programs unless absolutely necessary; return the raids on funds; and minimize cuts to education, colleges and local government. Get rid of the charter school expansion and new school choice vouchers. We can’t afford them. Accept public employee contributions to health insurance and retirement — as unions have agreed to do. Fund local government at last year’s level — this does mean no allowances for increased costs. With these changes there is enough money to reverse half of the cuts to tech colleges and local schools.
My math shows we can accomplish the above and fully fund basic programs like SeniorCare; school breakfast and milk; school buses and rural school aid; and help for homeless and needy veterans. And revive the deleted transitional jobs for the jobless and the popular Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin programs.
My proposal won’t make any big headlines. There are no glitzy new programs. I eliminate tax increases and tax decreases and keep taxes right where they are now. I take away half the cuts to education and tech colleges and add in the employee contributions. I restore local government aid to last year’s budget, holding down property taxes.
Budgets are all about choices. My budget does not raise taxes. It reduces the hurt on people, invests in our future, and protects our communities and vulnerable citizens. It does nothing fancy. But it steadies the ship of state and steers a strong course forward.
Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, represents western Wisconsin’s District 31 in the state Senate.