Capitol Commentary

James L. Palmer, II
WPPA Legislative Lobbyist

The following is an excerpt of testimony presented to the State Senate Select Committee on State and Local Government Relations in a hearing held on August 31, 2004.

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Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

As Wisconsin’s largest law enforcement organization, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association appreciates the opportunity to discuss ways in which the State can become more efficient in delivering public services to its people. The WPPA’s members possess a first-hand appreciation of how the decisions of state and local officials impact their ability to safeguard their communities.

For many years, a public debate has transpired as to how Wisconsin’s state and local governments can become more efficient. The WPPA acknowledges the significant contributions to this debate by groups like the Kettle Commission, the Sheehy Task Force, and countless others. Unfortunately, despite these contributions, programs in dire need of reform have been left virtually unchanged. Whether we represent special interest groups or voting constituencies, we have been wary of fundamental reform. We have relied too heavily on the “printout mentality,” whereby our support or opposition to reform is determined by the amount of money our interests will receive relative to the previous year. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more prevalent than with respect to changes in the State’s shared revenue program. We believe that a fundamental reform of shared revenue is a necessary first step in controlling the costs of government and reducing the tax burden on homeowners, families, and businesses.

Wisconsinites have some very specific expectations of their governments. Those of us who work in public affairs don’t need a poll or a focus group to know that Wisconsinites value their police officers, their firefighters, and their great schools. Without question, local governments provide a wide variety of valuable services, but the degradation of public safety and education only works to diminish the value of those other services. It is our belief that many budgetary decisions made by state and local lawmakers do not reflect these core values.

Speaking specifically to law enforcement interests, the general experience of local police officers whose governments must reduce their budgets fits one of two scenarios. Oftentimes, budget cuts are concentrated upon the most visible public services, such as police and fire. For example, when the Joint Committee on Finance approved a new spending formula for shared revenue in the last state budget, the then-Mayor of Milwaukee couldn’t wait to rush to the podium to announce he would be forced to lay off 50 police officers and close three fire houses, in addition to a number of libraries. Now Milwaukee would have seen its shared revenue reduced by almost $24 million under that particular plan, but when you consider the fact that Milwaukee’s budget is almost a billion dollars, one begins to appreciate that the sky was not falling as much as was being portrayed.

The second general experience of our membership, and quite frankly, the more common experience, is when local government budget cuts are implemented equally to all municipal departments. This may sound fair, until you take into consideration that a majority of most local budgets are comprised of police and fire services, meaning that these services are disproportionately impacted. Moreover, police and fire department budgets are largely comprised of personnel costs. Members of the legislature and the general public need to appreciate that cuts to public safety mean there will be fewer police officers and firefighters to serve our communities’ needs.

These points are not meant to disparage government officials. The fact of the matter is that we have a system in Wisconsin that facilitates the very practices I’ve just described. This system does not reflect the values that Wisconsinites hold most dear, and is a tangible source of frustration for them. Until we can all agree on a set of core values and principles with respect to programs like shared revenue, this frustration will not dissipate, but will only become increasingly palpable. Unless state lawmakers act to counter these public sentiments, and begin to establish a system which reflects the public interest, I am convinced that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), or some other draconian spending limitation, will be the end result.

The debate surrounding TABOR seemed to reflect a perception amongst members of the general public that property taxes are too high, governments are wasteful in their spending, and that elected officials are not held accountable for their budgetary decisions. These were the arguments made by TABOR’s proponents, who asserted that TABOR could fix these problems. This was evidenced, for example, in pro-TABOR literature which stated that the constitutional amendment “would help local politicians weed out waste and spend money on the things we really need, like police and fire services.” While that sounds good in theory, there was nothing in TABOR that could have actually accomplished its stated ambitions. Putting an arbitrary cap on spending will not effectuate the kind of systemic change needed to improve the relationship between the state and local governments.

The WPPA believes that Wisconsin needs to fundamentally reform this relationship in a way that addresses the public’s need for increased accountability in governmental budget-making. Specifically, shared revenue should be distributed in accordance with stated priorities, should provide incentives for consolidation and cooperation, and should protect core local services. Now we can debate how best to specifically accomplish those ideals, but we must first agree that fundamental reforms are needed, not just piecemeal improvements, and that they are needed today, and not when the economy turns around. Wisconsin cannot continue to fund its 1,850 local units of government in the same fashion as it does today.

In recent months, the WPPA has been busy meeting with a wide variety of groups about shared revenue and other spending reforms. The WPPA has engaged these organizations to explore any and all avenues to increase the level of efficiency and accountability in government. In the next biennial state budget, Wisconsin lawmakers will be confronted by a deficit of approximately $1 billion, and by the fact that the options available to reduce that deficit are limited. Likewise, state lawmakers will have a tremendous opportunity before them. The legislature can either seize the opportunity and implement fundamental systemic changes, which we admit is not without a measure of political risk, or it can continue down the same static path. If the next state budget is signed into law and does not include major reforms of the shared revenue program, the people of Wisconsin will have been failed, and the rigid cost controls of that type proposed by TABOR will be the only alternative. The WPPA believes that the risks associated with the latter are clearly outweighed by the public’s interest in maintaining the outstanding quality of life available in Wisconsin.

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