Thursday, April 3, 2008

Time for a new Kettl Commission?

A Democratic governor, tired of complaints from municipalities about cuts in state aids, says the whole municipal aid formula should be scrapped and vows to come up with a new one by the end of the year. While he's at it, he says he'll tackle the state's school aid formula and figure out a better way of compensating its urban hospitals for indigent care.

Governor Jim Doyle, perhaps? No, but perhaps it could be and should be. The governor in question is Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who says in a recent New York Times article that while the existing formulas "may have very well served the state at one point," they "don't relate to the realities of the world today."

Many would argue that our state's shared revenue and school aid formulas similarly are far removed from today's realities. Just ask Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who noted in a recent Journal Sentinel candidate questionnaire that "erosion" in the city's shared revenue payments has left its 2008 payment "23% lower in inflation-adjusted terms than its 1996 payment". Or Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who noted in his questionnaire that he would gladly forsake a portion of the County's shared revenue in return for moving "the cost of courts entirely to the state".

The state's school aid formula, meanwhile, has been a source of controversy for years, particularly in terms of how it affects Milwaukee and accounts for the city's voucher program. And the issue of compensating hospitals for indigent care recently has moved to the forefront in light of the Governor's proposed hospital assessment.

Eight years ago, Governor Tommy Thompson vowed to do something about these issues by appointing the "Blue-Ribbon Commission on State-Local Partnerships for the 21st Century", otherwise known as the "Kettl Commission" (after its chairman, Donald F. Kettl). The Commission's report, released in January 2001, contained numerous recommendations, the most prominent of which was to establish and define a "Badger Basics" package of education, human needs and justice services that the State would commit to fully funding.

Unfortunately, as many anticipated, the Kettl Commission recommendations have largely remained just that. Having staffed a member of the Commission, I believe this was due in large part to its composition and agenda, both of which were far too big. Perhaps today we need a more focused effort that would concentrate first on the issues of human services and justice funding.

Why those two? For one thing, voters across the state have voted overwhelmingly in referenda to have these mandated areas fully funded by the state. And for another, several recent developments create a crying need to review not only the funding, but also the existing roles and responsibilities of all levels of government in administering and providing services in those two areas.

In human services, the state's takeover of child welfare and privatization of W-2 in Milwaukee County, its move toward privatization and/or regionalization of family care throughout the state, and the creation of its new Department of Children and Families, make the time ripe for reconsideration of who does and pays for what. And with regard to justice services, recent movement toward community corrections and alternatives to incarceration across the state and nation, combined with increased understanding of the need to better link these initiatives and human services, makes this an ideal time to consider better coordination, as well as more logical funding mechanisms.

While I've never had much faith in blue ribbon commissions, we need to do something to bring better logic and accountability to these two state-mandated functions. Could a smaller Kettl Commission with a more narrow focus turn out something actionable this time around?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe we don't need a new Kettl Commission as much as we need to listen to the old one, and its many predecessors.

A few years ago, I charted the history of task forces, study committees and commissions appointed to find ways to make Wisconsin state and local governments and schools work better, and to reduce the friction that often enters into the picture.

I started with the the Interim Urban Problems Committee, which reported to the Legislature and Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson a half century ago.

"The problems arising from the rapid expansion of urban areas in the state are so numerous and complex that further study is essential," the committee concluded, and while some of its recommendations on incorporation and annexation made it into law, it's call for ongoing study did not.

State government managed to largely avoid the issue until 1971, when Gov. Patrick J. Lucey appointed the Citizens Study Committee on Metropolitan Problems.

That committee, headed by Gilbert W. Church of Glendale, took a look at local government in Wisconsin and found a system "designed for an agrarian society of a hundred or more years ago," an "urban community" plagued by "a patchwork of political boundaries which become increasingly aimless and arbitrary as they outlive their historical origins."

The not-so-surprising result? Higher costs of government.

Not much happened to streamline government, though.

By 1975, Gov. Lucey had another go at the issue: the Commission on State-Local Relations and Financing Policy, chaired by Harry L. Wallace of Wauwatosa and dubbed the Wallace Commission.

It made a series of recommendations along policy themes that included greater flexibility for local governments, easing reliance on the property tax, greater fiscal equity and encouraging consolidation.

Again, some of the Wallace Commission’s recommendations became state policy and many did not — notably the recommendation for encouraging areawide government.
In 1987, a brand new Wisconsin governor, Tommy G. Thompson, was concerned that property taxes in Wisconsin were 25% above the national average.

He appointed the Local Property Tax Relief Commission, chaired by then-Dane County Executive Jonathan Barry, who had opposed Thompson in the 1986 Republican primary for governor.

The Barry Commission recommended increased state aid funded by the sales tax, an idea that didn't go awfully far.

In 1993, Gov. Thompson tried again, with the SAVE Commission, which made recommendations on land use and regional problem solving as well as pushing for state government efficiency.

All of which was a prelude to the Kettl Commission and the Sheehy Task Force, headed by Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce.

After the dust had all cleared, brought a lot of the principals of the aforementioned studies together.
Jim Burgess, who chaired the SAVE Commission, suggested that not much would happen until we were at the point of a crisis, and we weren't there yet.

Are we there now?

My lengthier summary of the above, though showing its age (aren't we all?) is here:

Rich Eggleston