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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Is that a deficit in your pocket, or are you just happy to see it?

Wisconsin's conservatives are revelling in the news that Wisconsin faces a $1.6 billion deficit heading into the next budget cycle:
Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature will have to close a $1.6 billion deficit as they develop the next two-year budget, according to a new report released Monday.

Officials vowed that they would not raise taxes to close the gap between what state agencies say they need and what taxes are expected to generate.

The $1.6 billion figure was the latest estimate of the so-called structural deficit facing the state. It is about 6% of the $26.4 billion that state government is on track to collect in taxes and fees over the next two years.
They're revelling because it's Jim Doyle who is the public face of that shortfall, and not Mark Green, and because with one house of the legislature now in Democratic hands, they can blame us for any failure. You've got everything from smarmy I told you sos to you get what you deserve coming from their side, with a healthy dose of Doyle lied, he lied, he lied because he claimed to have balanced the budget (I paraphrased a little). But let's go back to the story, shall we?
Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature will have to close a $1.6 billion [. . .] gap between what state agencies say they need and what taxes are expected to generate.
One thing the critics are forgetting is that we don't owe anyone any actual money yet; this is just the gap between budget requests and projected revenues for the next two years. Two years ago (note that date on that memo, Rick), we got an almost identical report, and, by all accounts, we expect to end this biennium with a small--in the tens of millions--surplus. In other words (raids to the transportation fund notwithstanding), it's the righties here who are lying when they say Doyle didn't--past tense--balance the budget. The 2007-2009 budget isn't written yet; Doyle didn't claim to have balanced it yet; we don't even know the details of all the agencies' demands yet. How can Doyle have lied about something that hasn't even happened?

I suppose turnabout is, indeed, fair play, since we are still dealing with the aftermath of the Thompson-McCallum years (where's our tobacco settlement money?). But I can only imagine sighs of relief from their side--along with their stifled giggles--that Green won't be dealing with the problem. Green, if you recall, couldn't even begin to describe how he'd address budget issues during the campaign just completed (staying vague on purpose?), beyond just promising to spend money wisely and cut taxes.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the projected deficit here won't shrink as the budget process nears, and we face a full $1.6 billion shortfall. Rather than just lie about Doyle and snigger at the challenge he and the legislature faces (or predict end-of-the-world tax and fee hikes), I challenge the right to propose a solution. What would you cut? Do we educate 80,000 fewer K-12 children? Release 20,000 prisoners? Pave 800 fewer miles (.pdf)?

Personally, I think we do something bold and try to fix the high cost of health care:
Employers in Wisconsin pay an estimated 26.5% more to provide health benefits than the national average, according to a respected national survey released Monday.

The annual survey by Mercer Health & Benefits LLC found that health benefit costs average $9,516 this year for each employee in Wisconsin, compared with $7,523 nationally. That's $1,993 in additional average costs for each employee.

The Mercer survey also found that costs in Wisconsin rose this year at a faster rate, 9.3% on average, compared with 6.1% nationally.
If you think these stories--deficits and health care--aren't related, you're not paying attention. If the state paid less for its employees' health care (and all the local units of government, too--not to mention you, the consumer/ citizen/ taxpayer), the projected cost of running the place would fall and there would be more money in your pocket, too. I continue to lament that, fifteen years ago when the state tinkered with school funding formulas (adding revenue caps and the QEO), they didn't tackle health care instead. If they'd done the work then to keep health care inflation at closer to overall inflation--or just closer to the national average for health care costs--we wouldn't be facing a deficit now. See my post yesterday, or Carrie or Ben for more.

So there's my idea. Now you--give us a hand, oh ye wise sages of AM radio and the Right Cheddarsphere. Don't just dance your happy dance, and don't be vague like Mark Green. Try to be productive in this discussion, and put your ideas where your big mouths are.

Update: More from Seth, here, and you can make up your own mind about Milwaukee Journal Sentinel bias.
Update 2: Carrie takes on Charlie Sykes and George Mitchell; in short, they're all wet.

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