Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Where's the conversation about consolidation?

Release of Governor Doyle's 2009-2011 state budget has engendered a range of predictable responses. Republicans decry tax increases and argue that not enough has been done to cut spending. Democrats applaud tax fairness and argue that critical investments in education and safety net services are being preserved.

In the meantime, both parties give short shrift to the structural problems that likely will require a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to fix, not to mention a very healthy dose of statesmanship, compromise and innovation.

An editorial in yesterday's Wisconsin State Journal calls the budget proposal "underwhelming," arguing that bold moves to restructure state government were forsaken because the governor "is about to get a pile of federal road money to get him through another two years". Whether or not that characterization is completely fair, it is difficult to avoid concluding after the first week of budget action and reaction that we are destined once again to put off the difficult decisions about the structure of government in Wisconsin that must be made to right the state's fiscal ship.

Indeed, most glaringly absent from both the governor's budget and reactions to it is any discussion of government consolidation. We're already having the typical fights about the school funding formula, shared revenue and municipal and county property tax levy caps, but whatever happened to the conversation initiated by the long-forgotten Kettl Commission to completely revise the way we structure and fund government in Wisconsin?

Some other states are using the opportunity of an economic crisis to ignite that very conversation, albeit with less than stellar results. An article last fall on the Governing website detailed the actions taken by state governments to try to push consolidation on local governments and school districts, including a far-reaching proposal by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to eliminate townships and force school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to consolidate with others.

Daniels' plans were largely shot down by the Indiana Legislature last week for a variety of good and not-so-good reasons. But in Indiana, at least, conversations are occurring at the state level regarding whether existing government structures are too anachronistic, inefficient and expensive to appropriately serve citizens in the 21st century.

Perhaps, as we blogged about almost a year ago, it is time for a new Kettl Commission?

1 comment:

Paul T. Sienko said...

Some legislator somewhere recently joked/warned about "wasting a perfectly great crisis (referring to our current economic woes)" by not setting out to accomplish big picture goals. The study and reform of how state, county and municipal governments work, or don't work, is way overdue. I'm glad you pointed out that the same tired arguments, come budget time stem in large part from whether or not government functions are working. Call it what you will but I simply call it cowardice to dream big.