State budget a mixed bag, but mostly good

GUEST OPINION

COMPARED TO THE FIREWORKS of his first state budget two years ago, Gov. Scott Walker’s latest spending plan is a modest display.

Instead of historic cuts to public education, Walker’s $70 billion state budget boosts K-12 spending by $250 per pupil over the next two years.

Instead of forcing state workers to pay more for their benefits, Walker and his fellow Republicans deliver a small raise.

Those are welcome changes.

Walker takes the private voucher school program statewide - a move that wasn’t justified, given the lack of accountability and evidence of success.

Yet enrollment increases are tightly capped. Walker also pledged during a meeting Wednesday with the State Journal editorial board to push for more transparency, including requiring voucher schools to receive the same state report cards as public schools.

That’s only fair to taxpayers, parents and students.

Walker’s latest budget offers a $650 million income tax cut. That sounds like a lot of money. But the savings will be relatively small for most people.

The Democrats wail that the rich will get more back in real dollars. That’s true, but only because they pay so much more in taxes to begin with. Based on a percentage, the Republicans counter, lower-income people will get a bigger break.

And according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the income tax rate for the wealthiest people will still be higher than it was in 2008, before the Democrats raised it.

The Republicans tout the tax cut as a boost to the economy. Yet the impact will be muted because they haven’t lowered how much money the state will withhold from paychecks. That means most workers will get bigger refund checks a year from now, delaying the impact.

Walker’s budget spends some $600 million of new money on Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled that the

At issue:
New state budget
Bottom line:
Less divisive this time

state has struggled to afford for years.

Walker is taking a big chance by not accepting more federal money to expand Medicaid. The move will cost the state more than $100 million over the next two years and prevent tens of thousands of individuals above the federal poverty line from joining the state’s BadgerCare insurance program.

Yet every person below the federal poverty line in Wisconsin will be eligible for virtually free insurance coverage, which is an improvement from past years. And those with higher incomes can participate in private exchanges set up and subsidized by the Obama administration.

In an odd twist of partisan talking points, Wisconsin’s Republican governor is relying on the Democratic president’s exchanges to cover more people just above the poverty line in Wisconsin, while Democrats here are arguing Obamacare won’t work or be affordable for those same people.

Walker’s budget continues to invest in roads and bridges. That’s good for business, jobs and tourism. Yet he’s borrowing some $1 billion to do it, ignoring the pressing need to find sustainable funding sources for transportation as the gas tax stalls.

Unlike his last state budget, when he dramatically improved the state’s bottom line, Walker backtracks on fiscal responsibility. The state could face a gap between spending and revenue of $500 million two years from now if its economy doesn’t improve. And when generally accepted accounting principles are applied to the state books, a much bigger deficit is growing again.

Walker failed to keep non-fiscal policy out of the state budget as he had pledged. Yet he vetoed some of the worst stuff, including a return of bounty hunters and the attempted eviction of an investigative journalism center at UW-Madison.

Taken as a whole, the Republican state budget offers some sparkle but not a lot of pop. It’s a more moderate proposal for a governor about to face another election next year. — Wisconsin State Journal, July 7


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