Gas Pains

Tom grew up in Milwaukee, bartended in Wauwatosa in the '70s and moved here in 1984.

Commentary, observations and musings about the outdoors, life in general and maybe Tosa politics and personalities will be the order of the day. He savors a lively debate as much as terrific cooking.

Sullivan and Vukmir - The Budget

Representative Vukmir, Senator Sullivan

The State of Wisconsin’s budget seems a frightful mess to me with all of the accounting tricks and sleight-of-hand measures seemingly exhausted.  The next Governor and Legislature are going to have their hands-full in balancing the State’s books. This is a multi-part question.

Do you expect that cuts to the budget will have to occur?

Tell us precisely what sections of the budget will have to be cut. For instance, will it be corrections, or the university system, aid to municipalities, etc. Please be specific about quantifying the potential savings in actual dollars if possible.

Are there state departments or programs that will not be cut under any circumstances or will the pain be shared equally?

Are there any circumstances that you would consider raising taxes or fees to help mitigate this problem?

If a cut in the state budget results in a corresponding increase in taxes at the local level is it still a cut?  Explain.

What you see above is the first of four questions I posed of candidates Vukmir and Sullivan.  I interviewed each candidate separately over the course of a couple weeks.  Questions were not submitted in-advance.  At my request the candidates provided additional details by email relating to various issues covered by our discussions.

Today kicks-off the first of four posts covering each of the four questions. 

Some observations first.

Listening to a response from Sullivan is like trying to sip water from a fire hose.  I had to make him stop just so I could make sure I wasn't missing an essential point.  If I tried to store that much information in my head it might explode.

Vukmir was more laid-back and made sure I got everything I needed to know.  Very measured and deliberate.  This was my first opportunity to spend any meaningful time with this candidate and it was good to get to know her and discuss a few unrelated matters off the record.

Stylistically the candidates are different personalities.  I'm not saying one style is better than the other - but they are different.  And I have no clue if that translates into an advantage or edge in governing.

Back to Wisconsin's sorry fiscal circumstances.

Vukmir described the State's financial condition as a bipartisan failure.  Her position is that Wisconsin's financial situation is the result of decades of Democrat and Republican bad behavior.  The current state of affairs cannot be laid at the feet of any one party.

Wisconsin is in need of a Governor capable of being the architect of a budgetary blueprint and she was quick to point out that Scott Walker was the one person to do so.

Jobs creation was a key piece to the puzzle.  Describing it as Economics 101, Vukmir spelled out that a general reduction in taxes - capital gains, income taxes, combined reporting and so-forth would result in an increase in jobs.  The consequence of which is an increase in state revenues.

Sullivan began his remarks by pointing out that he was the only Senate Democrat to vote against the Governor's last budget.  Miffed over the delays on replacement of the Zoo interchange he explained that the legislature has simply kicked the can down the road over this project.  Accelerating the project could have resulted in significant savings to the taxpayers and a fast completion would pay dividends to economic growth in the region.

If anyone wants to suggest that the I -39 project will take priority over the Zoo interchange it will be over my dead body.

As well for Sullivan it's all about jobs - making the point that jobs creation goes a long way towards increasing state revenues.  Pointing out the shrinking role of older manufacturing sectors in Wisconsin's economy Sullivan insists that Wisconsin does technology well and growth must now come from newer research and innovation sectors of the economy.

Driving home his insistence on a measured approach to solving the budget problem Sullivan pointed to his opponent claiming that she would get rid of Department of Commerce grant funds.  There is a right way and a wrong way to do this and grant funding supports entrepreneurs.  Businesses start-ups create jobs.

Vukmir was unwavering on the subject of taxes.  We need to reduce spending.  It is not that we tax too little, but that we spend too much.  As Vukmir describes it - truth in budgeting is her way of seeing that government is held accountable for the budget process just as families and businesses are.

The budget process should be such that you start with a list of needs rather than a list of wants.  By example she made clear that instead of setting the starting point of a department budget with, say, the last budget cycle's dollar amount - it should be zeroed-out and reconstructed from scratch.

While she would not provide any quantifiable figures regarding measurable savings, Vukmir was unfaltering in her position that what she described as cost to continue budgeting must be replaced with zero-based budgeting.  Forcing departments to create priorities and justify their budget requests.  

I pressed Vukmir for specifics.  Pointing out to her that if the state cut aid to local units of government leaving elected officials with no choice but to raise taxes to pay for essential services - how was this still a cut?

Vukmir's response was that she was committed to continuing funding at current levels for both shared revenue and education.  Explaining that ensuring that municipalities have sufficient resources for essential services such as fire and police is a matter of public safety and recognition of the burden paid by property taxpayers.  Same for education.  She was supportive of continuing the state's two-thirds funding share for schools.    

Sullivan was equally quick to say that in the current economic environment it would be wrong headed to raise taxes and fees as a means to balancing the state's books.

He made no suggestion that there was not going to be any shared pain.  Expounding upon what he describes as a measured approach to fixing the budget he advocates taking a top down look at each department's finances to ferret-out inefficiencies, seek out savings and suggest cuts that make sense.  Let me give you a few examples.  With that he launched into a rapid-fire explanation by ticking-off any number of places to begin.

Drawing a comparison with Minnesota he explained that Wisconsin incarcerates individuals at a much higher rate and maybe we should be looking to corrections to find budget cutting options for non-violent offenders. 

Reform of drunk driving laws can result in less lost work time, less recidivism and less taxpayer expense. 

Before cuts are considered to UW the legislature has to be sensitive to research payback to the state's economy. 

The first thing that needs to be done is stop digging a hole.  Then you need to manage budget cuts in a responsible fashion.

What's wrong with reconsidering sources of funding?  Explaining how in one of life's great economic ironies - high mileage vehicles are contributing less money through gas taxes towards maintaining the state's transportation infrastructure.  A Chevy Volt isn't going to pay very much in gas taxes at all

Sullivan suggests that regardless of who the next Governor is there will be a great temptation to raid one department's segregated funding to support another's needs.  Pointing out that he was the only Senate Democrat to co-sponsor legislation forbidding transfers of segregated funds, he claims the practice needs to end.

Both candidates seemed loathe to touch funding for education.  Whether it was out of deference to the local property taxpayer as with Vukmir.  Or out of a concern for loss of research initiatives and falling behind peer states as with Sullivan.

The problem with this as I see it is simple.  For 2009-2011 - appropriations to education totaled more than $23 billion.  Top of the list and more than 37% of the total.  

That is the proverbial thousand pound gorilla in the living room

We'll have to see.

On deck for Wednesday - The Big Fat Middle.

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