By Tom Still

MADISON – A veteran of past political wars in Wisconsin insists there are only two times to truly change state and local government: The first is when there’s a mounting state budget surplus, and the second is when there’s a huge deficit.

It’s safe to conclude we’re in Opportunity Mode No. 2. State revenue estimates have pushed the projected state budget deficit to $6.6 billion by mid-2011, assuming Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature just sit back and do nothing – which, of course, they won’t do. But what is the “something” they will do? This is a time to consider some bold ideas that might not get past a public hearing during more flush or even normal conditions.

Here are a few examples, each of which is cocooned in complicating details, competing economic and political rivalries and other factors that would lead many, if not most, people to cry, “We can’t do that!” But if not now, when? In no particular order:

-    Implement a winner-take-all bidding process for generating electricity to serve government. The energy needs of state and local government, the University of Wisconsin System and other public institutions are enormous – as are the costs. However, the distribution system is in place to easily move electricity from one city or region to another. It’s possible to take “generation geography” out of the equation and take advantage of varying rates.

-    More strongly link state aid payments to local governments to attempts to consolidate functions. Wisconsin has more government than it can afford. With 72 counties, hundreds of cities and villages and more than 1,000 towns (a unit not found in most states), the Legislature should tie state payments to local governments to cooperation in providing basic services. That could start in common business services, such personnel and purchasing, and grow from there as confidence builds.

-    Consolidate school districts where it make sense; bust up school districts where the status quo isn’t working. Combining school districts in rural areas need not mean closing schools, but gaining administrative efficiencies. Breaking up the Milwaukee Metropolitan School District could help pave the way for needed reforms.

-    Put public school teachers on a statewide contract. The district-by-district bargaining approach is Kabuki theater that unnecessarily pits school boards and administrators against teachers in a race to see who can strategically settle a contract first – or last. Build in regional cost-of-living adjustments to better control costs, but make it more possible for good teachers to teach in all types of districts, rural, urban or suburban.

-    Redefine the senior year of high school. Wisconsin spends an inordinate amount of money to educate kids twice – once in the K-12 system and again in the first year or so of college or technical college, where remedial education costs represent up to 20 percent of spending. Why not try to solve that problem in the 12th grade, when students can get remedial help in those areas where tests or performance show they’re lacking? It’s also a great time to introduce students to the choices available to them, from technical college or internships to college.

-    Invest in the new economy, not the old. While the angel investing environment has dramatically improved, Wisconsin continues to lag in attracting much larger rounds of business start-up capital called venture capital. The proposed Wisconsin Venture Network would be a big step. Next, create a voluntary check-off that would allow taxpayers to put a few bucks from their tax returns in a statewide venture fund that could be invested in Wisconsin’s early stage companies.

-    Build a 21st century tax system. Wisconsin’s tax system grew up around an economy that has changed dramatically, from one that was almost exclusively based on agriculture, raw resources and manufacturing to an economy that is defined by service, technology and exports. It’s also a system built upon state government being a giant ATM machine, returning dollars to schools and local governments that were raised at the state level. Excellent tax reform plans have been proposed; let’s dust them off.

– Eliminate the Wisconsin Highway Patrol. While many states have patrols, they’re empowered with broader law enforcement duties. The traffic safety duties of the patrol could be transferred to local law enforcement, which handles the full range of public safety problems. It could save a surprising amount of money.

Wisconsin’s state budget problems are not incurable, but they will remain chronic without some bold steps. These aren’t all of the ideas nor do they come with a claim to be the best, but they’re representative of the type of debate Wisconsin needs to have now.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.