By Tom Still
MADISON – For all the talk-show chatter about cutting government spending and holding the line on taxes in Wisconsin, do state policymakers or the people they represent really want to bite the bullet?
Based on what happened last week in the Wisconsin Assembly, and what is likely to happen this week in the state Senate, the answer is a tepid “maybe.”
Perhaps ambivalence in the Capitol accurately reflects the mood of most voters, who are quick to tell pollsters state and local taxes are too high and just as ready to protest if they think state or local services are threatened by a lack of public dollars. In Wisconsin, we are tax hawks and public service doves.
The Legislature’s lower house could barely muster a majority last week to pass a proposed amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution that would limit how much state government could spend out of its general fund. By a vote of 50-48, the Assembly voted to recommend capping state spending via a formula tied to growth in personal income. That early Friday vote came after the Assembly had rejected a tougher amendment that also extended spending controls to local governments.
The watered-down proposal faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where many senators may believe it’s a bad idea to alter the Constitution to control spending and taxes. Wisconsin has a representative democracy, skeptical senators argue, and voters elect legislators to make tough tax and spending decisions for them. If those voters don’t like decisions made in their behalf, they can replace those who made them in the next election.
The proposal awaiting action in the Senate must pass two successive Legislatures before it can be brought before voters, who have the final say on whether the Wisconsin Constitution is amended.
The debate over the spending cap amendment is typical of the schism in Wisconsin public opinion over taxes and spending. Poll after poll shows Wisconsin residents think taxes are too high, but they rarely agree on where to make sufficient cuts to hold the line on taxes. Sure, “cutting bureaucracy” is a favorite answer, but there’s not much bureaucracy left to be cut these days – at either the state or local levels.
In state government, 90 percent of all general fund spending is focused on services to individuals (such as Medicaid), K-12 public education, higher education, the prisons and aid to local governments. The rest of the so-called “bureaucracy” – state agencies such as Workforce Development, Commerce, Natural Resources and Agriculture – makes up only a fraction of the total state spending.
The poll conducted by St. Norbert College in DePere for Wisconsin Public Radio is a prime example of “Jekyll and Hyde” public opinion behavior on taxes and spending. Since 1994, pollsters at St. Norbert have asked this same open-ended question in the same way of a cross-section of randomly selected voters: “Please tell me what you feel is the most important problem facing the State of Wisconsin?”
Taxes has ranked No. 1 in 11 out of 14 polls conducted by St. Norbert/WPR, and has never ranked lower than third. However, the percentage of people listing taxes as the biggest problem has varied widely – from a low of 14 percent in October 1996 to a high of 54 percent in March 2003, with the latest poll in April showing that 26 percent of respondents ranked taxes as the state’s biggest problem. Economy and jobs (15 percent), education (12 percent) and health care (10 percent) were next in line. Government budget and spending ranked seventh on the “biggest problem” list at 5 percent.
If taxes are the biggest problem, shouldn’t government budget and spending levels be close behind? Not in the minds of those responding to the poll. Apparently, people are not making the connection that one drives the other.
Wisconsin citizens love to complain about taxes in the abstract, much like they gripe about the weather. But when it comes to doing something drastic to reduce taxes, they’re not so sure they want to live with the consequences.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.