Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A crisis and an opportunity

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 28, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The Wisconsin budget crisis is behind us to the extent it isn’t ahead of us due to latent structural deficits. The governor can veto out some pork and whatever additions offend him, but it is fundamentally his baby.

As agonizing as recession politics are, which are characterized by the worst of all worlds--lower income and higher cost--they do offer opportunities to rethink and rearrange the status quo. The status quo one should remember is not an accident. Someone put it there. And those someones are mobilized to make sure it stays put. The most serious threat to our democracy, as the NY Times Bill Safire pointed out 31 years ago, is hardening of the arteries.

Among the things on my unfulfilled wish list are:

1. The icon of local control of schools when most of the funding comes from elsewhere should be addressed. The state is putting up most of the money. The state should run the system. Set up a Department of Education as a cabinet office, fold DPI into it, and start running K-12 as the state system the Constitution envisioned.

2. How about turning the property tax into a series of fees for services and assess it on every piece of property that gets those services? Fire protection, police protection, waste collection, roads, and other vital services go to churches, non-profits, hospitals, everyone. Everyone should pay.

3. K-12 and vocational and technical education costs which are paid in part or in full with property taxes could be picked up by the state which has access to the almost equally unpopular income tax or the most popular of an unpopular category, the sales tax.

4. Wisconsin is awash in governmental units. What is it that towns do except conduct elections? Which brings up the parallel point that we have a ridiculous number of election districts in Wisconsin. Is it time to eliminate towns?

What about counties in metro areas. Isn't it time for us to have metro districts that fold in the suburbs and the cities and villages that are really part of the greater inter-dependent metro system?

6. Is it not time to extend the sales tax to services to recognize, among other things, that ours is increasingly a service economy. There’s a good excuse lying around for putting a sales tax on legal fees, to take one service at random. The money this would raise could be used in part to pay for court elections. This would eliminate the unsavory practice of lawyers paying to elect judges, and would have the desirable side effect for lawyers of not having to make those contributions. It may be more of a cost transference than a tax increase. Win-win.

7. There are minor cost savings available as well. All the work that the Constitution drafters assigned to offices like the secretary of state and the state treasurer has been taken over by the Department of Administration. These offices can be eliminated, which would require amending the Constitution over the dead bodies of the traditionalists from both parties. How about simply not funding them, which wouldn't?

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