Dear Governor Walker – Here’s how to balance the budget without hurting children, families, seniors, and cities (hint – have a cup of coffee with Senator Vinehout)

With the Joint Finance Committee fast – tracking your budget proposals, it’s time to be completely honest about your budget, Governor. It’s difficult for you – but let’s pretend for a minute you actually care about the people of Wisconsin. Let’s say you set aside an ideology being executed at the national level by corporate interests with very deep pockets. Forget the fact that no matter what the political outcome for you today, your benefactors will most certainly take care of you – just like they took care of Tommy Thompson. Let’s say, hypothetically, that your very future relies on you doing the right thing for the people who live, work, and die in Wisconsin. Yes, this is a stretch – let’s say you actually reach across the aisle to a State Senator from a very rural district for advice on the budget. Your poll numbers are plummeting, recalls are threatening Senate control, and you need to show you can compromise (again, this is a stretch). You’ve heard that Senator Vinehout (D – Alma) drafted a budget in response to her constituents’ concerns. You sit down for a cup of coffee with her to hear her ideas.

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout represents a large portion of Western Wisconsin, primarily Monroe, Jackson, Buffalo, Trempealeau, and portions of other surrounding counties. It is a heavily rural area dotted with small cities and towns, bracing for a heavy impact from the Walker budget – primarily in schools and municipal services. After the budget hearings in her area were abruptly canceled, Senator Vinehout presented her own budget as a comparison to Governor Walker’s. Her constituents were able to have their concerns heard, at least by the legislators present at this “impromptu” hearing. What Vinehout proposes is (in her own words) not flashy, and won’t make any headlines. It tells the truth about Wisconsin’s fiscal situation, and protects the Wisconsin Idea – governing policy that benefits the greatest number of people, not an elite few. Here are the highlights of the issues addressed by her budget proposal. To begin, her plan presumes the acceptance of  public employee benefit contributions, already agreed to by unions.

Truth #1 – We are not broke. In a biennial revenue comparison by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Governor Walker has $2.2 Billion MORE in revenue to work with(2011-2013) than Jim Doyle had in his last biennium (2009-2011). This has to be the starting point for anyone seriously interested in an honest budget creation and negotiation. Any other assessment at this point is an outright lie.

Truth #2 – Governor Walker’s Budget Increases Spending. We have to be honest about this fact. In a Legislative Fiscal Bureau comparison of appropriations and revenue , Walker’s budget spends over $478 million more than Jim Doyle did over the biennium. That’s right, more. Admit it, Governor – we are not broke, and you have plenty of money to maintain state services and programs. So let’s continue this dialogue honestly – where did all that money go?

The Vinehout Budget Amendments address fiscal priorities that affect children, families, seniors, and municipalities. These are the issues that will have most impact on the majority of Wisconsinites. If you want to have an honest budget debate with an eye on the future – look at how the Walker Budget addresses these groups. Page 1 of Senator Vinehout’s amendments would restore the cuts to General Fund Programs to the tune of $505 million. This would include:

Restore School Aid Cuts – $351 million

Restore Aid to Rural Schools – $2.98 million

Restore Alcohol and Drug Abuse Grants – $8.7 million

Restore Senior Care – $15 million

Restore Municipal Aid Funding – $37.4 million

Reverse Tax Increase to Earned Income Tax Credit – $41.3 million

Restore Reduction to Tech College Aid – $17 million

These cuts in the Walker budget (by any honest observation) target groups that are not only the most vulnerable, but have the greatest impact on the future of the state. Educating children in an outstanding public school system, services for senior health care and vulnerable populations, fiscal aid to keep cities strong and vibrant, all make sense in continuing an economic and social recovery in Wisconsin. Page 2 of the Vinehout Budget Amendments shows where state revenue is going in the Walker Budget, and the difference in priorities. Keep in mind Walker has chosen to make cuts to the above groups – schools, children, families, and municipalities. The Vinehout plan would revert the following funds back to General Revenue to support the programs cut in the Walker Budget.

 Charter Schools – While cutting funds to public education, the Walker budget spends over $40 million in combined funds to support expansion of charter schools. There is no unbiased evidence that charter schools work any better in educating children than public schools. In fact, there is less accountability and lower standards across the board for charters. It is easy to measure success against low standards. This charter expansion is an experiment at the expense of public schools and children. Let’s be clear – no one has advocated INCREASING money to public schools, merely keeping current expenditures in line.

Executive Salaries – In supposedly tight economic times, over $10 million dollars is going to salary and fringe benefit increases in the Department of Administration and Governor’s offices. Enough said.

Tax Cuts to Large Corporations – $52 million dollars in combined reporting losses. This is a boondoggle for giant, multi-segment corporations. It allows these companies to combine tax data to “report” a business  “loss” for a fiscal year, even from out-of-state segments of its business. Under the proposed law, the Department of Revenue could not even investigate a reported loss – the corporation’s word has to be accepted as genuine. This lack of oversight will certainly lead to abuse of this tax policy.

Tax Cuts to the Top 2% income bracket – Cuts in Capital Gains taxes will lead to a loss of $36.3 million in tax revenue. The wealthiest individuals benefit from this policy change – that is a fact from LFB analysis. Again, enough said.

“Economic Development Corporation” – $35 million in another corporate boondoggle. The mere existence of this state – sponsored agency propagates the myth that tax cuts create jobs. This is merely taxpayer money going to corporations that already avoid paying taxes, in an all out grab for state resources. It rewards corporations favored by the Governor’s office; who has authority to create agency policies.

Governor Walker, if you were actually willing to have that cup of coffee with Senator Vinehout and really listen, you would realize the Vinehout Budget proposal addresses issues critical to Wisconsin, and maintains collective bargaining rights while balancing the budget. If the numbers of Wisconsinites supporting you actually understood the truth about your budget (rather than relying on half-truth talking points), the demonstrations would be even larger. The truth is, you don’t care. Any hope anyone has of you actually doing what is right for Wisconsin is a false one. The tax cuts and spending in your budget will benefit a select few – and truth be told, create very few new jobs while creating a greater burden on the ever-shrinking middle class. That is what you have been paid to do (isn’t it?), and perhaps that’s how you sleep at night. Enjoy the remaining time you have in the Governor’s Mansion. The more people find out about the effects of your policies, the more likely your recall. Your ideological marriage to the new Robber Barons will be your demise – these are not Wisconsin values. 

Let’s send a message! Save the “Vinehout Budget Amendments” pdf file from the link, and email them to Governor Walker (govgeneral@wisconsin.gov) with a message that you want him to prioritize what is right for Wisconsin – not a select few favored corporations and wealthy. It may not change his mind, but he’ll know we are paying attention, and will hold him accountable.

Postscript: More specific budget information can be found in previous Badger Democracy blogs on Education , Families, and Municipalities.

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