By Tom Still

MADISON – The Legislature has finally got what it wanted – some budget haggling “quality time” with Gov. Jim Doyle over tea and crumpets in the Executive Residence. Make that non-stop quality time. So much quality time that one can imagine a State Trooper barring the way if Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch or Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson bolt for the door.

It’s as if Doyle is singing the night clerk’s line from “Hotel California,” the classic Eagles song: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

After months of sitzkrieg politics, Doyle, Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats are informally mapping out a strategy that could break the state budget deadlock within a week. While a great deal of work remains to be done, here’s what’s known about two big-ticket items – as well as some recommendations for getting over the hump on three other issues.

Healthy Wisconsin has caught pneumonia. The Senate Democrats’ expensive health-care plan is on hold, which is no surprise given it wasn’t on Doyle’s wish list and it drove the GOP nuts. But many business owners think the status quo isn’t working – and even hurting their ability to compete. Whether it’s the next president or the states, someone will try to “fix” health care in the next three years. Given the regional nature of health-care issues, the states are probably the better choice. This issue will come back.

Don’t be late for school. While no one will get everything they wanted, a compromise on state funding for K-12 public education appears in the works. The overall funding level will look much like what Doyle proposed, but some priorities will shift. Passing a K-12 funding plan soon could avoid statewide property tax increases.

Create a compact for UW spending: As it passed the Assembly, the budget falls $120 million short of Doyle’s recommendation for University of Wisconsin System spending. As a percentage of state general-purpose spending, the UW has steadily lost ground over the past 15 to 20 years while other major programs (K-12, corrections and Medicaid) have increased. That slide cannot continue if the state hopes to produce the kind of workers needed by our core businesses.

Funding the UW at the same level as last year really isn’t an option, given inflationary increases in everything from utilities to salaries. What’s needed is a “higher education compact,” similar to the two-thirds state support deal with K-12 schools, to put UW funding on an even keel. It has more or less worked for K-12 since 1993, so why not higher education? Once the UW budget is at least stabilized, a larger debate about transforming higher education could take place.

Don’t confuse fee increases with tax increases. Wisconsin needs to reduce its state and local tax burden, and one way to do so is to shift costs to user fees. Democrats should like fees because they avoid service cuts. Republicans should like them because fees based on actual use by people or companies are as close as it comes to market-driven in government.

Equip Wisconsin to compete in the global marketplace.  So-called “business attraction” dollars in the state budget have historically been little more than a rounding error. The state Department of Commerce spends a grand total of $30,000 on business attraction, which is shorthand for marketing, and the non-profit Forward Wisconsin gets about $320,000 a year from the state to serve as its marketing arm.
Doyle took a modest step toward raising the state’s visibility by suggesting the state spend about $1.2 million on specific, targeted business attraction over the next two years. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee reduced that to about $750,000 and the Senate concurred, but the Assembly deleted all spending increases. It has also clamped down on the Wisconsin Development Fund, one of the state’s few economic development tools.

In the Assembly’s defense, its members want to the money spent on strategies tied to the future versus the past. If Doyle can guarantee a fresh approach, a modest increase is warranted. This is not a suggestion that Wisconsin try to spend toe-to-toe with neighbors such as Michigan ($8 million a year), Iowa ($5.7 million) or Ohio ($5.2 million). But it should at least match Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana, which spend $500,000 to $1 million each per year.

There’s a hostage crisis in Madison! With luck, all three players will keep themselves captive until the work is done.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, and covered past budget debates.