By Tom Still


– After months of debate, public hearings and numbers-crunching, the mid-summer status of the 2007-2009 state budget is exactly what most observers predicted: It’s in the hands of a small group of seasoned lawmakers who will try to reconcile sharply competing versions.


This bargaining process, known as a “conference committee” report, will involve an equal number of Republican and Democratic leaders from the Senate and the Assembly – and a bit of shuttle diplomacy on the part of Gov. Jim Doyle, who introduced the $57 billion budget bill six months ago.


The goal: Come up with a budget that will pass both houses and not trigger an avalanche of line-item vetoes by Doyle.


Given the multi-billion-dollar gap between the Senate and Assembly budgets, lawmakers can’t nickel-and-dime their way to consensus. Nor can they satisfy every legislator’s pet peeve or project. But they can embrace some guiding principles to move them closer to a budget that serves Wisconsin’s best interests at a time when the national economy may be softening.


  1. Don’t hurt our ability to compete in the global marketplace.Wisconsin won’t win in the 21st century economy by one-upping Iowa, Minnesota or Illinois; it will succeed by becoming a place where innovation is second nature and products are first rate. Lawmakers should embrace ideas that propel Wisconsin’s “knowledge economy,” whether those involve attracting the right investment capital – or creating the right human capital. Skilled, educated workers and managers are today’s most valued commodity.
  2. Beware the wrath of irate parents. As it passed the Assembly, the budget falls $120 million short of Doyle’s recommendation for the University of Wisconsin System budget. University leaders are now waiting to set tuition rates for the coming academic year – and they’ve put financial aid letters on hold, as well. The longer this process takes, the more likely legislators will be blamed for keeping Johnny and Jane Student in limbo.
  3. Beware the wrath of irate business owners.Wisconsin’s secret weapon in the fight to build a skilled workforce is the technical college system. Its graduates come largely from Wisconsin, are ready to work today and want to stay here. Also, Wisconsin businesses have hundreds of partnerships with the 16 tech college districts. Business owners who rely on the tech colleges will ask hard questions if they think those relationships are endangered.
  4. Don’t think the health-care issue will go away. Yes, the Senate Democrats plopped a hugely expensive health-care reform plan on the table with little prior debate. Yes, business owners are panicky about the cost of that plan. But many business owners think the status quo isn’t working – and even hurting their ability to compete. Even if it’s not a part of this budget bill, health care costs and access still merits a serious debate. Reading the tea leaves from Congress, as well as the 2008 presidential candidates, state reform will come long before federal change. Wisconsin might as well lead the pack versus following it.
  5. Not all fee increases are 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.
  6. Be bold, but not rash. A conference committee offers the last, best chance to bring up good ideas that somehow fell through the cracks during early stages of the budget debate. If there’s a chance to put Wisconsin on the road to a better way of paying for local government, K-12 schools or corrections (three big-ticket costs), now the time to give it a whirl.


The budget year starting July 1, so the clock is ticking. The conference committee members selected have the experience and know-how to work it out, especially if they check a good measure of partisanship at the bargaining room door.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.