When the polls close Tuesday, the Wisconsin candidates for governor will be one step closer to the governor’s office – as well as taking the helm of the looming state deficit of more than $2 billion.
The incoming governor will face a state deficit of approximately $2.71 billion upon taking office, based on economic growth and the rate of tax collection in the state, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
While the top gubernatorial candidates have outlined plans to counter the deficit should they take office, Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, believes this economic problem will be central to the beginning of their time in office.
“This is going to be the 800-pound elephant in the room that they will have to deal with [for] just about anything in the state government,” Burden said. “The solution will be harder than either Barrett or the Republicans are suggesting.”
With the primary election upon them, Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Mark Neumann have both laid out strategies using spending cuts to bring the deficit down.
“Mark is committed to across the board spending cuts to ensure that spending will actually equal the amount available,” said Chris Lato, a spokesman for Neumann.
Barrett’s plan also emphasizes spending cuts and plans to cut $1.2 billion in state funding, said Phil Walzak, a spokesperson for Barrett.
Barrett’s plan differs from Republican candidate Scott Walker’s, which does not pinpoint spending cuts, a move Barrett does not believe will lead to a decrease in the deficit, Walzak said.
Rather than focusing on cutting programs, Walker intends to decrease the deficit by having state employees contribute to the employee portion of their pension rather than dipping into state funds, said Jill Bader, spokesperson for Walker.
None of these plans is a guaranteed success, however.
“When you’ve got a bad economy and a broken budget, that’s an awfully bad time to be in a position of governing,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “[The candidates] are going to have to make tough choices and they haven’t revealed what those choices will be yet.”
Jay Heck, executive director for Common Cause in Wisconsin, said the candidates have not fully addressed the problems regarding the deficit, nor have they answered questions about what programs to cut, what funds they intend to cut into and where taxes will be raised.
To take the first step toward fixing the deficit, the elected governor will need to rearrange his budget priorities, a task that will set Republicans and Democrats apart, Heck said.
Despite these best-laid plans, the deficit will most likely present a sizable obstacle to the new governor in January.
The budget will dictate what programs the new governor can institute or where to cut taxes because there is no money to do so, Heck said.
“The deficit is going to be the issue that will define the new governor’s legacy and hugely impact whether or not they are up for re-election in four years,” Burden said.