A new word for leaders: NoDave Ross describes an epiphany in a McDonald’s: The mayor of Superior, he heard a constituent asking indignantly whether his tax dollars were supporting a golf course.
By: By Patrick McIlheran/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Superior Telegram
Dave Ross describes an epiphany in a McDonald’s: The mayor of Superior, he heard a constituent asking indignantly whether his tax dollars were supporting a golf course.
Ross realized the answer was “yes.” Superior owned and ran a golf course. It was losing about $75,000 a year.
Not any more. The city still owns the course, but privatized its operation, and it gets a share of the ensuing profits. Golf now supports the taxpayer. So does the city’s landfill, similarly privatized.
Ross, who is one of four Republicans running for lieutenant governor, tells this to explain how municipal government can be made more modest and less expensive even in an old-time Democrat stronghold that went 70 percent for Barack Obama.
If it can happen in Superior . . .
It had better happen elsewhere. The state government is in deep fiscal trouble because of the recession, but a new report by a former revenue secretary points out that once the storm abates and the economy shines again, Wisconsin’s finances will still be a wreck.
Get this, writes Richard Chandler in the report for the free-market Wisconsin Policy Research Institute:
Even if the state’s tax revenue bounces back to its ordinary growth rate, and even if all spending is frozen but for schools, the university, Medicaid and prisons, and those four grow only at historically average rates, no catching up – then state government is still $2.2 billion in the hole at the end of the next biennial budget.
Assume faster tax growth: We’re still $1.2 billion in deficit. And we freeze all spending: Still a $775 million deficit. Tax the rich? Doesn’t close it. And cut all state agencies 5 percent? Still doesn’t do it.
The reality, writes Chandler, is that Wisconsin’s government spending has long outstripped its tax revenue – even though our tax burden is well above average. The only way the Doyle administration made the budget work, even with more than $1 billion in tax increases last year, was a huge transfusion of federal “stimulus.” Don’t bet on more of that.
“It’s obvious fundamental changes have to be made,” said Joe Sanfelippo. He’s on the Milwaukee County Board, and he was talking of the county’s similar problem.
It’s called a “structural deficit,” meaning that spending to which government has already committed outstrips expected revenue. The county’s structural deficit was $80 million starting this budget, says Sanfelippo. By 2014, the county will start the budget $153 million in the hole.
Milwaukee County offers many services, and it pays employees generous benefits, now and after retirement. This, hiring a lot of costly help, is why spending outstrips revenue. It isn’t because county employees don’t work hard, says Sanfelippo — they do — but because for years, the county hasn’t said “no.”
Take the county’s swimming pools. The county loses money running them. It makes money on its popular water park in West Allis, but the County Board wouldn’t hear of replacing some seldom-used pools with another water park.
It’s much easier to keep running pools than for board members to make a hard but sensible choice, said Sanfelippo – especially if the feeling is, “if we need more money, we’ll just go to the taxpayers.”
So, members of the board now talk of a parks sales tax even as they reject County Executive Scott Walker’s proposals to rationalize parks staffing. “Do we really have to have people making a career out of mowing grass?” asked Sanfelippo. No, we don’t, but until now, officials here and around the state have largely avoided making such hard choices. That’s how structural deficits quietly swell.
If Chandler’s right, avoidance is about to turn to post-recession, post-excuse reality. Wisconsinites will have to decide how much government is sustainable. Their elected representatives will need to get used to a new normal: that of having to say “no” daily, even to decent ideas that nonetheless push us past the limit of what taxpayers are willing to pay for.
Because if officials don’t say “no” regularly, they’re going to find themselves admitting that, yes, they really are needlessly dissipating taxpayers’ substance on frivolities such as golf courses that lose money.
Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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