Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gasbag or effective legislator?

Some people accuse the U.S. Congress of being all talk and little action. Now there's a website that's tracking that talk in a fun, interactive way, allowing you to pit any two Senators or members of Congress against one another in a war of words.

For example, when Wisconsin's two Senators are compared, it's clear that Sen. Russ Feingold spends much more time in front of the mike than Sen. Herb Kohl. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008), Feingold spoke nearly five times more words from the Senate floor than Kohl, with 113,965 to Kohl's 23,107, ranking Feingold 13th most loquacious. Of all the words uttered by Wisconsin's 10 legislators, Feingold spoke 42% and Kohl spoke 8%.

And what were they speaking about? The most commonly uttered word by Feingold was Iraq, with Americans and security also ranking highly. Kohl said care most often, and help and health frequently as well.

The stats for the rest of the state's delegation (in alphabetical order):
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D)--13,672 words, health, insurance, and care are most common
Rep. Steve Kagen (D)--18,875, health, care, children
Rep. Ron Kind (D)--18,243, country, farm, tax
Rep. Gwen Moore (D)--12,457, Milwaukee, school, health
Rep. Dave Obey (D)--34,643, billion, earmarks, percent
Rep. Tom Petri (R)--9,710, loan, students, FAA
Rep. Paul Ryan (R)--25,177, budget, tax, spending
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R)--3,395, rights, property, research

It's probably fair to say, based on the stats above, that Feingold is most responsible for Wisconsin's rank of 18th among states in terms of verbosity.

Unfortunately, the site can't tell you whether the legislators were speaking for or against any of these ideas. But now you can judge whether you think you're getting too much talk or not enough out of your representatives in D.C., and whether the talk is on the issues that matter most to you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The People Speak: Greater Milwaukee citizens' views on the economy

The Public Policy Forum is pleased to launch a new research product today in partnership with UWM's Center for Urban Initiatives and Research (CUIR) and The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee: results from our new The People Speak poll.

The People Speak is a tracking poll that will be conducted at regular intervals throughout the year. Its purpose it to gather information from local citizens about their interests in, preferences for, and concerns about public policy. By gathering and reporting out these citizen perspectives, the partners hope to expand the public voice in policy matters affecting Greater Milwaukee.

Each poll will have a set of standard questions on topical public policy issues, the responses to which we can track over the long term. Because some of those questions are identical to those used by the Forum in previous public opinion surveys of southeastern Wisconsin residents, we'll also be able to compare the results to those we obtained several years ago.

In addition, each poll will have a set of questions that centers on a specific public policy theme. The poll results released today (from polling conducted during the last week of September) center on the economy: both how the economic downturn is impacting Greater Milwaukee residents, and how residents view governmental efforts to get the economy back on track.

Accompanying each set of poll results will be a Research Brief that analyzes key results. The Research Brief released today can be accessed here at the new The People Speak web site. The following are some highlights:

  • About a third of respondents say they have experienced problems saving or paying for retirement, paying bills, and paying for health care during the past six months. Nevertheless, 64% are optimistic about their financial futures.

  • Milwaukee area residents are more supportive of state and local tactics to revive the economy than federal efforts. For example, solid majorities believe that state and local governments should be doing and spending more to promote development and attract new businesses, yet only 45% believe the federal stimulus legislation was a wise use of public funds and 35% believe another stimulus package is warranted.

  • While "jobs" ranked only as high as fourth or fifth in citizens' rankings of most important issues facing the four-county Milwaukee region in polls conducted from 1999-2002, it ranked first in the 2009 poll. The issues of crime/violence, schools/education and transportation ranked lower than ever before.

Stay tuned for release next month of results and analysis of the general public policy questions from our September survey.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Milwaukee city and county budgets not for the faint-hearted

The Forum released its analysis of the 2010 proposed City of Milwaukee budget this morning, following up on our similar analysis of the 2010 recommended Milwaukee County Budget released last week. I wish we had better news.

A recurring theme in both analyses is that expenditure needs largely driven by increasing pension and health care costs have far eclipsed stagnant and inflexible revenue streams, necessitating cuts in services that will be noticeable to citizens. Even more depressing, the problems facing both governments are likely to worsen.

While the general nature of the problem is the same, the severity clearly is far greater for Milwaukee County. We have noted previously that the city stands roughly where the county stood six or seven years ago -- on the precipice of major imbalance but still with some tools to ameliorate the situation.

The 2010 budget proposals from the mayor and county executive reflect that perception. The city can ease the pain of its $49 million increased pension contribution and cuts in state aid by tapping into its tax stabilization fund, pension reserve and parking reserve. Furthermore, it still posesses sufficient vacancies to cut hundreds of positions without forcing layoffs, and it still can resort to administrative restructuring and other departmental tinkering to generate savings that do not produce immediate and highly noticeable service-level impacts.

In contrast, the county has no reserves worth mentioning, and several successive years of bridging $40 million budget holes have left it with little wiggle room to reduce staff or seek efficiency without significantly impacting both employees and services.

The clear disparity in options is perhaps one factor that led the county executive to take an extreme budget risk by counting on huge cuts in employee compensation that have not yet been negotiated with county labor unions. The mayor, meanwhile, has been able to plug in significant yet much smaller savings from a two-year wage freeze and relatively minor health care and pension concessions already ratified by his largest union, while only gambling that other city unions will accept something similar.

Of course, the difference in tactics also is distinguished by the mayor's decision to propose $19 million in property tax and service charge increases, while the county executive has proposed no property tax increase and roughly $5 million in bus fares, zoo admissions and parking fee increases.

As we stated in both analyses, as well as in previous reports (see here and here), it is difficult to imagine how either government can right its fiscal situation in the long term without a combination of new revenue streams (which could include new local taxing authority and/or revenues from the lease or sale of major assets), deep service cuts and/or substantial wage and benefit concessions.

What is most critical is that leaders of both governments plan for the future (and forcefully engage state officials) as soon as the ink is dry on their 2010 budgets, so that they don't end up in the same place next year, facing huge budget holes with fewer available options.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pittsburgh's model of school governance reform

In the past few weeks Milwaukee has had numerous town hall meetings, panel discussions, and presentations regarding the idea of school district governance reform. At issue is whether the mayor of Milwaukee should be in charge of the Milwaukee Public Schools, rather than an independent board of directors.

At each of these meetings, accountability has been thrown about as both an argument for and against a mayoral take-over of the district. Perhaps a mayor elected in a higher turn-out citywide election would provide more accountability; or maybe losing the opportunity to elect a school board representative would disenfranchise certain voters, diluting accountability.

In Pittsburgh, civic leaders, parents, and citizens decided to stop talking about accountability and actually implement it. A local nonprofit group, A+ Schools: Pittsburgh’s Community Alliance for Public Education, started an initiative called "Board Watch" last winter. The idea is quite simple: send volunteers to attend every board and committee meeting and have them report to the public whether the board is being effective in meeting the district's strategic goals.

The volunteers are trained to observe meetings and evaluate the performance of the school board on five good-governance practices: maintaining focus on the district's mission, being transparent, conducting meetings in accordance with district rules, having clarity in the role of the board and its members, and competency, including substantive knowledge and preparedness. Board Watch issues quarterly report cards with grades for each of the five practices, as well as overall performance. The reports also include recommendations for improvements.

Board Watch is seen as both a public engagement tool, by creating more interest in board activities and decisions, and as a way to provide the public with a set of expectations for good board governance. Earlier this decade Pittsburgh's board had become so dysfunctional that three large local foundations decided they would no longer donate funds, costing the district millions of dollars in support. Civic leaders decided the community needed to set clear expectations for how the board must function and created the A+ Schools organization to work on reform.

Pittsburgh board members seem to be sanguine about the project, wishing they could also be graded on things like good intentions. But they do acknowledge the merits. Says one board member: “If you watch any school board meeting, whether it’s us or some other board, how often do you hear them actually talk about education? Slowly, I think Board Watch is going to help us focus on why we are there.” Sounds like the kind of focus needed in Milwaukee, as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The luxury of mass transit

The city-state of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, opened a new high-speed rail system last month. The Los Angeles Times reports that despite the city's crushing traffic congestion (estimated to cost over $1.4 billion annually in lost productivity), it will be a hard sell to get riders.

The article calls Dubai a "city defined by individualism and gated communities." Indeed, this is the home of the tallest man-made structure on Earth (the Burj Dubai office tower); fantastical artificial islands of high-rise condos, hotels, and villas (the Palm Islands); and a shopping mall containing, among other things, a 22,550-square meter indoor ski area (Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates.)

So, reports the Times, "authorities are highlighting the grandeur of the new rail system over its convenience." Judging by the Dubai Metro station pictured above, the new train system is living up to its billing. The goal is to increase the number of residents using mass transit from 5% to 20%.

If Dubai is successful in getting commuters out of their expensive cars and onto high-speed rail, could luxury be a tactic used here to attract individualistic U.S. riders? Perhaps, but at a cost of over $177 million per mile, the Midwest likely won't be the first to try transit Dubai-style.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How do we compare to our neighbors? Depends on whom you ask

You know the drill: Wisconsin’s economic strategy just isn’t measuring up compared to others.

A July 18th editorial claimed “Wisconsin is struggling.” It said Iowa seems to have a better plan. An August 8th column by John Torinus argued, “We get outgunned by states with much larger budgets for economic development.” He said Michigan seems to be doing better. On October 3rd, Torinus wrote that Wisconsin was falling behind Illinois and Minnesota. He quoted a UW-Madison expert as stating the state economy is in “very bad shape.” Meanwhile, Marc Levine’s recent editorial blasts local economic development efforts as being prey to “irrational exuberance.”

While that’s the tone we’re used to, it appears others see our economy and business climate differently. A two-part series (here and here) in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Thomas Lee details a competition for biotech firms in which Minnesota is clearly the underdog. “When it comes to innovation,” Lee states, “Minnesota is quickly falling behind its neighbor.”

The articles cite a number of Minnesota-grown biotech start-ups fleeing to Wisconsin, where businesses interviewed claimed they had access to more money, and where organizations like the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, University Research Park and Accelerate Wisconsin, along with tax incentives and investor capital, create a friendly climate for new ventures. (The Milwaukee County Research Park's Technology Innovation Center uses similar strategies locally.)

Even with a $6.5 billion deficit, the budget passed by Wisconsin legislators increases angel investor tax credits from $5.5 million to $18.25 million and venture capital credits from $6 million to $18.75 million. Minnesota has no comparable tax credits and, while Minnesota does not appear to track angel investors, Wisconsin has 22 angel groups that made 53 deals in 2008.

In the Star Tribune, Wisconsin and its Madison university are compared to Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, MIT, and Stanford University and are said to feature “the most formidable university technology transfer program in the country” as well as “the country’s most industrial workforce.”

The director of business development at a Minneapolis health consulting group explains, “There is a real desire to succeed in Wisconsin. The state has no stodgy culture. It’s a culture of newness, a desire to try new things.” Another executive gushes, “Wisconsin is a very exciting place. You just get a sense of forward motion. Wisconsin is doing something right.”

What are we to make of the contrast in tones between how we see ourselves and how others perceive us? Judging from the above-referenced inter-state economic comparisons, as well as the Public Policy Forum’s own analysis of the Minnesota business community’s involvement with early childhood education reforms, in some ways, the grass is always greener on the other side. However, that does not change the fact that comparison with other states is an important tool for seeing one’s own state – its problem areas and its strengths – in sharper focus.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

All politics and all health care reform is local

Here at the Forum we try to keep our work current, focusing on topical issues of importance. Health care reform is obviously one such issue. Yet the Forum's mission is to inform local policy debates, not national ones. So it was not immediately apparent what role we might have to play in the conversation about health care reform.

An article in last month's Governing Magazine made it more clear--local policy decisions can have big impacts on health care costs and on the health care system itself. The Governing article was actually about state budget decisions; it seems many states are cutting their support for poison control centers, which some studies have shown save big money in emergency treatment costs.

The author of the article (none other than Don Kettl, namesake of the Kettl Commission on state-local partnerships) notes that "most of the political and budgetary pressures we face are pulling policymakers away" from investment in system efficiencies and preventative medicine, and are instead resulting in "strategies that might save a few dollars now but drive up health costs in the long run."

As we digest the proposed 2010 City and County budgets, we should keep in mind that there may be long-term ramifications of budget cuts that will reverberate beyond Milwaukee. The proposed budget for the city's Health Department, for example, includes an 8% reduction in expenditures and an 11% reduction in staff compared to the 2009 adopted budget. Cuts in state and federal revenues result in a county budget that calls for a 9% reduction in expenditures in adult community mental health services and a 7% cut in expenditures for AODA services (drug and alcohol treatment) compared to 2009--leaving holes that are difficult to fill with local revenues.

These cuts may in fact reflect new efficiencies and may not negatively affect services or outcomes. Or, they may be penny-wise and pound-foolish from a taxpayer's point of view, saving money today that will create a debt later. Citizens need to be aware of the potential for either outcome and judge proposed budgets accordingly. The Forum will try to help; look for our detailed city and county budget analyses in mid-October.