A few thoughts on Scott Walker's latest budget ironies | WisCommunity

A few thoughts on Scott Walker's latest budget ironies

What's wrong with this picture? Scott Walker says his coming state budget proposal will include $220 million in bonding authority for a new Milwaukee sports arena even while he's planning another $300 million budget cut for the University of Wisconsin System.

So, more money for bread and circuses (well, since Walker has trimmed food assistance programs for low income residents, actually it's just circuses) and less money for higher education and advanced research.

A couple of points on each of these proposals, starting with:

NEW ARENA FOR THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Bonding is essentially borrowing authority, backed by the state for public and private projects. The Milwaukee arena would be an essentially private development. Without a new arena, the Bucks probably leave the state. On the other hand, Republicans profess to hate borrowing.  I stress the word "profess."

Walker is already past the billion-dollar point in borrowing for highways and other state government needs, as much and more indebtedness than past Democratic governors ran up. The GOP legislature has blessed that approach. Message: borrowing is bad...but, hey, it's good!

Walker's Milwaukee arena funding proposal is hypocritical in another respect, as it clashes with conservative and Republican ideology that Walker himself claims to believe in. Consider the following.

Conservative and GOP critics of Milwaukee's planned streetcar project are outraged because the city is arranging to create a tax incremental financing district (TIF) along the streetcar route. That temporarily would dedicate future gains in property tax revenues within the project zone toward some of the streetcar construction costs, costs pushed higher in part because of moves by the Republican opposition.

Here's the hypocritical part: Some of the critics are opposed to the TIF because it would remove those revenues from the city's general fund, where they could be spent elsewise. Meanwhile, however, Walker proposes a parallel method of paying back the $220 million he would borrow to fund the new Milwaukee arena. The state currently collects about $6.5 million in taxes from NBA players and teams when they perform in Wisconsin. That money goes into the state's general fund. Walker proposes that in coming years, growth in revenue above that amount will be used to pay for the arena bonds.

Now maybe Republicans in the legislature who hate Milwaukee will nix Walker's arena funding scheme, but the hypocrisy stands. A public transit system? Can't do that! Diverts new tax revenues from other possible purposes! But a privately owned sports arena funded in essentially the same way? Can do!

Moreover, the state bonding authority for the arena will be about four times higher than borrowing for the streetcar, and it will be a state obligation, not a City of Milwaukee obligation.

"This is the ultimate free-market fiscally conservative approach going forward,” Walker said of his arena financing plan. Yes, but only when a Republican proposes it.

Side note: The way things are shaping up with the funding package of both public and private dollars for the proposed arena, concerns by not-for-profit groups in Milwaukee who want the arena development package to include support for area parks, cultural institutions and the arts appear as though they are going to be completely ignored.

CUTTING UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN FUNDING

Walker proposes to further whack higher education in a state that everyone agrees needs to push harder into high tech. Without a readily available talent pool, those high tech developments are likely to continue going mostly out-of-state, along with the college students we graduate. And without that creative class of talented science professionals, the state will struggle to keep up with neighbors like Illinois, Minnesota and even Michigan.

Further, Walker would continue to cap UW tuitions for two more years, meaning the schools would have to find other savings. You know, like increasing classroom size, delaying or killing new programs, and laying off employees and giving up on keeping some of the most talented academicians from leaving the fold by increasing their pay against the market.

Walker also proposes to make it much easier for individuals not holding an education degree to become elementary and secondary school teachers. Hey, maybe a truck driver could be licensed as a rocket scientist, too, while he's at it.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party put all of these moves into succinct context:

"His first budget cut $1.6 billion from K-12 education and $250 million from the world-class UW System, he’s put a staggering $124 million into unaccountable voucher schools, and now he’s proposing a plan to cut another $300 million from our universities while drastically lowering standards to become a public school teacher."

Walker himself says the $300 million cut in UW funding is similar to what he did four years ago in pushing Act 10, in which he not only gutted public employee unions to "save money" because "we're broke," but also whacked all those education aids and clawed back nearly a billion dollars in public employee retirement funding and fringe benefits. The negative impact on local economies across the state has been measurable. No wonder the state's economy is wallowing.  But there also have been serious negative impacts on many public schools and their ability to proper educate our kids.

As Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council noted, among all 50 states Wisconsin already is 37th in state appropriations for higher education and 47th in percentage growth in that spending. Which is to say that if Walker has his way, the UW will likely struggle to remain in the pool of world-class universities. You don't see research and high-tech powerhouses like California pulling this kind of rug out from under.

But, as Alabama Gov. George Wallace once put it, who needs all them pointy-headed university intellectuals? And so what if professors are making world-class, pioneering advances in genetic, biotech and other research that creates new industries and new well-paying jobs? Hey, the Walkerites don't like that stuff, anyway. It's scary.

Wisissippi, here we come.

Published

January 28, 2015 - 9:45am

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