To win the vote is merely to start the work.
After the Wisconsin Senate on Wednesday, and the Assembly on Thursday, passed a biennial budget that has both ups and downs — it spends much more taxpayer money, but much less than the metastatic demands of Gov. Tony Evers — Wisconsinites clearly got some wins.
It is up to Wisconsinites to consolidate and expand those.
Criminal justice: Help and expectations
The budget improves pay for prosecutors and public defenders — a major priority of the Badger Institute. This is necessary: Wisconsin’s pay lagged not only comparable states, as the Badger Institute has shown, it lagged the pay for other competing job options, leading to growing delays in criminal cases as district attorneys’ offices struggled to keep staff.
This matters. This month, for example, a man who tried killing Milwaukee police was convicted in absentia. He didn’t show up for trial, since he wasn’t in jail despite his past convictions for armed robbery, cocaine possession and being a felon with a gun. He was out on a no-cash signature bond because of trial delays.
Wisconsinites now have addressed the staffing shortage said to be one cause of such chaos. This is a win. We ought to now expect the justice system to staff up, try criminals, convict the guilty, use incarceration as a deterrent.
But those next steps require that Wisconsin voters pressure prosecutors and judges into doing their jobs appropriately.
The school choice beachhead
Already signed into law is increased funding for families who choose to take their children’s state school aid to independent schools. The increased school choice funding that the Badger Institute long has called for helps close the per-pupil funding gap between district public schools and independent charter and private choice schools enough to sustain them as an option for the growing number of interested families.
That’s a win for Wisconsin children.
Now? The program still uses perversely complicated funding. It still excludes middle-class families. Voters will need to press lawmakers for more reforms.
Taxes, small businesses and envy
The Legislature sensibly gives back to taxpayers at least some of the surplus the state has taken from them: It proposes cutting Wisconsin’s income taxes, including the top rate, one of the highest in the country, and moving at least a little toward a single-rate system that taxes all incomes proportionately.
That top rate, unchanged even as lower brackets have been cut, afflicts two-thirds of the business income reported by the vast majority of Wisconsin businesses that pay taxes on their owners’ personal returns. So, as the Badger Institute has pointed out, such reforms benefit everyone in our economy.
Gov. Evers, however, may still veto relief for those small businesses, and it’s instructive to listen to his rhetoric. He speaks of relief as going to the “wealthy,” and more broadly progressives say high-rate taxpayers don’t really need the money — as if taxpayers’ earnings belonged to the state and any relief were an allowance.
So even if the tax relief survives, we have work to do. The case must be made, over and over, that income taxes are revenue-raiser and not a kind of vengeance against those who earn and save. It must be explained how loading the cost of government disproportionately onto people who can move businesses to a lower-cost environment is backfiring for our slow-growth state. It must be explained how envy is corrosive to society.
None of this should be discouraging. As is often said, there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Good citizenship makes ongoing demands.
The lessons in the Milwaukee bail-out
And what are those demands? There’s a lesson in the already-signed bill to bail Milwaukee’s governments, city and county, out of their fiscal mess.
That law gives Milwaukee the added local sales taxes city and county leaders long demanded. But the money comes with strings attached, and Milwaukee politicos did not like that one bit.
The bill says the new 2% sales tax — said by the city to be desperately needed to cover pension obligations — can’t instead fund expansions of Milwaukee’s superfluous fare-free streetcar that costs $15 per ride to operate. It requires that some police officers be stationed inside Milwaukee public high schools to prevent trouble rather than being summoned an average of 7.2 times per day after crimes occur — another Badger Institute priority.
Milwaukee, the law also decrees, cannot spend any revenue from the tax on “funding any position for which the principal duties consist of promoting individuals or groups on the basis of their race, color, ancestry, national origin, or sexual orientation.” When hiring, it can’t discriminate on those grounds, either.
This simple ban on racial or sexual discrimination is “one of the biggest attacks on us,” Ald. Marina Dmitrijevic said this week, “and is absolutely unfair, unjust and unacceptable.” Much of the council seems to agree.
Legislators simply added limits against bigotry, waste and disorder that any mic-in-a-parking-lot poll of constituents would reveal as more popular than Taylor Swift tickets. Yet Milwaukee’s Common Council this week was exploring how it could nullify those limits.
This suggests a string theory: If you grant a government money with strings attached, someone had better be ready to tug on those strings. The first on the list of “someone” is an engaged citizenry.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.
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