Following Barbara Lawton’s decision to drop out of the Wisconsin gubernatorial race last week, the Democrats were left without a gubernatorial candidate and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker was left in the driver’s seat. Even though the election is still a year away, the Republican frontrunner is already looking to consolidate his advantage. In a conference call with reporters Monday, Walker indicated some of his first moves regarding the budget would be to undo a recently passed tax increase and cut other taxes, possibly at the expense of state employee benefits.
It is clear Walker has the financial record to tackle many of the issues currently facing the state government. After all, he took over a Milwaukee County government rocked by scandal and near bankruptcy and transformed it into a semi-functional one.
However, pledges of no new taxes are growing old, whether I have to read lips, mark words or even step over dead bodies. That line has been tried many times over with limited success. At some point, it may become necessary to raise taxes to maintain solvency at the capitol. Without a doubt, there are efficiencies to be found within all branches of state government. Nevertheless, to suggest the entire state shortfall — which was in the neighborhood of $6.6 billion last year — can be solved by simply tightening Uncle Sam’s belt is nothing short of fantasy.
Furlough days almost certainly figure to be part of the solution. Earlier this year Walker used them to help bridge a $15 million county deficit and Gov. Doyle has ordered a set of eight forced days off to help close the state gap. Unfortunately for Walker, the numbers are simultaneously too big and too small.
They are too small in the sense that staff cuts will fail to make anything more than a cursory dent in any future budget deficit that awaits the state. For example, Doyle’s furlough order is only estimated to account for a bit more than one-thirtieth of our current shortfall. Although it may be possible, I doubt you can squeeze the other 95 percent out of the union.
On the other hand, the numbers are too big in the sense that the furlough measures imposed by Walker in Milwaukee County this past May amount to a 12 percent pay cut for the affected workers. If Minnesota state workers were not afraid of a former wrestler and struck in 2001, I doubt their colleagues in Wisconsin will tremble before Scott Walker. Besides, that’s a pretty big number to ask anyone to swallow.
The issue also hits closer to home. Although we don’t really think of them as such, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 2,000-odd faculty members are also state employees. Given the lack of competitive salaries and benefits to our professors that has been well-publicized over the past year, it would be devastating, from the university’s standpoint, if it were forced to slash compensation packages just as it begins to build them back up.
Any 12-year-old raised within earshot of Ronald Reagan could have come up with the idea that cutting taxes and slashing state employee benefits would save the state money. However, it will not save the state $6.6 billion — it will not even come close. Mr. Walker, as well as the rest of the state, should be well aware that solving our financial problems will require creativity and tough decisions, not magic bullets.
Moreover, while state finances are an important issue, they are not the only one Wisconsin faces. Important decisions regarding transportation, education and that Brett Favre guy will be made over the next four years, and while Walker and his supporters have gone to great lengths to characterize his economic credentials, they need to weigh in on these as well if they hope to make a complete case for the governorship.
Joe Labuz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in biomedical engineering.