Monday, May 12, 2008

Engaging the Public on Tough Budget Issues

To most Wisconsinites, May signifies the beginning of warm weather and the first taste of summer. But to local government officials in Wisconsin, it signifies something far more foreboding: the start of a long and difficult budget process.

In light of the economic downturn, which has created new revenue holes and added significant new expenditure needs for counties, municipalities and school districts, the sense of foreboding this year is worse than ever. Indeed, local budget officials already know this will be one of the worst budget years ever.

But what if this year -- instead of grappling with their immense problems in private all summer and then springing agonizing budget decisions on the public in the fall -- these officials engaged the public early in the process and leveled with citizens about their challenges?

A recent article by the city manager in Phoenix describes how that city did just that. Faced with certain public uproar over unavoidable decisions to cut services, city leaders launched a comprehensive public information campaign to inform citizens about the causes and nature of their challenges and the menu of difficult options from which they would have to choose. The city even went so far as to create an 8-page primer on budget options in tabloid form that was inserted in the Sunday newspaper. The result was a rational debate that apparently was high on public empathy and low on hyperbole and friction.

Another approach employed in California by the non-profit Next 10 (and highlighted in a Milwaukee Talkie blog post last fall) invites citizens to log on to a web site and take the California Budget Challenge, an interactive tool that requires them to try to balance the state budget themselves. More than 40,000 Californians have taken the challenge so far -- you can do so by clicking here.

Could such approaches work here? Unfortunately, the way we have typically approached public discussion of tough budget issues makes that debatable. Previous efforts to initiate public dialogue at public budget meetings have often turned out to be community organizing exercises. For example, as previously reported in the Journal Sentinel, public meetings on the Milwaukee County budget typically have generated significant participation from union members and advocacy groups, but little from regular citizens. While there's nothing wrong with professional organizers showing off their prowess and having their say, this phenomenon does tend to detract from the value of these sessions to policymakers.

Also, efforts to engage the public in reasonable dialogue must first pass through the lens of the local news media, which sometimes can be problematic. Last week, for example, the Forum released a comprehensive 40-plus-page report detailing the history behind Milwaukee County's transit crisis and presenting policymakers with a menu of options. The Journal Sentinel headline writer's take on our report was that we were "calling" for the most controversial of those options -- a $10 vehicle registration fee.

With so little to gain and so much to lose, it is little wonder that local government officials tend to conduct their internal budget processes behind closed doors. But given the excruciating decisions facing local government leaders this fall, maybe full-scale public participation is worth a try. Creative efforts -- similar to those employed in Phoenix and California -- to educate the public and to engage it in rational public discourse over budget issues might be just what is needed to have our entire community take collective ownership over the fiscal problems we are facing.

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