Thursday, April 16, 2009

Budget woes demand collective response

Former UW-Madison political science professor Donald F. Kettl, leader of the "Kettl Commission" (which worked on reforming government structure in Wisconsin nearly a decade ago), pens a foreboding piece in this month's Governing magazine.

Entitled "After the Stimulus Ends", the article warns of the "long-term fiscal crisis" facing most state and local governments. Kettl says the crisis may be alleviated somewhat by stimulus funding but is not going away. He cites growing pension and retiree health care obligations and an increasing state Medicaid burden as the primary drivers of the worsening state and local fiscal mess and predicts the likely need for more federal support two years from now:

"Barring major reform, looming deficits will force state and local governments to come back again (and again) for more federal cash. They won't be able to cover their share of the rising health care costs without increasing taxes to unacceptable levels or slashing their spending even further, which would mean less money for their other serious crisis in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure."

Of course, that warning comes as no surprise to observers of government budgets in Greater Milwaukee, who recently have become painfully aware of the precise magnitude of budget woes facing Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools, not to mention the State of Wisconsin's $5 billion-plus budget hole, which appears to be worsening.

So amidst all of this bad news, is there any hope? If hope means silver bullets, then the answer is "no." Undoubtedly, the financial problems facing all levels of government will require considering a mix of painful cuts in programs and services; additional cost sharing by public sector employees for their pensions and health care; privatization of some public sector assets; and increases in fees and taxes to support programs and services that are too critical to diminish or eliminate.

But if hope means using the financial crisis to produce innovative and creative ways to improve government services with fewer resources, then the answer has to be "yes." It is somewhat surprising that Professor Kettl, in his Governing article, did not evoke the words of the commission he led, which argued for "innovative partnerships among Wisconsin’s state and local governments that will...deliver better value for taxpayers' dollars...reduce tension in the political system and make Wisconsin’s state and local governments genuine partners instead of adversaries."

If ever the time were ripe for radical change in the way our various layers of government relate to one another and generate and distribute revenue, wouldn't that time be now, when the four largest government entities in the State of Wisconsin are in such dire fiscal shape? Could this fiscal crisis create the ingredients necessary to reasonably discuss a collective solution in an atmosphere devoid of turf battles, partisan politics and undue influence from special interests?

Unfortunately, this morning's Journal Sentinel article regarding renewed hostilities between Milwaukee County and the state over public assistance funding indicates the notion of genuine partisanship remains an elusive dream. It's time, however, for our various levels of government to recognize that by fighting with each other during times of crisis, they are only making matters worse.

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