Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau was created in 1968 by a Republican governor, Warren Knowles, and a Republican-controlled state legislature.
The purpose was to establish a nonpartisan agency that would provide honest fiscal analysis and information for Wisconsin Legislators. Across more than four decades, the bureau has done just that, earning the respect of legislators from both parties, including a young Scott Walker, who frequently cited the bureau when he served in the state Assembly.
Less than a month ago, a Fiscal Bureau memo reported that the state had a $121.4 million surplus through the remainder of the current fiscal year.
That is a fact that is now under attack by Governor Walker, whom the conservative publication Human Events refers to as the “new hero” of the Republican right. Walker argues that—as Republicans and Democrats have acknowledged for some time—the state’s fiscal house is not in order and that unsettled issues relating to a payment due Minnesota after the canceling of a tax agreement, as well as rising healthcare and prison costs, could well create a shortfall before the end of the year.
So it is possible that Wisconsin might need a budget repair bill of the sort Walker has proposed before the fiscal year is finished, as it has in many years.
But Wisconsin has not reached the statutory trigger—roughly $188 million—that would demand a repair bill.
So why is Governor Walker rushing to act now? Why is he doing so with a bill that massively extends his own authority over cabinet agencies while creating new positions to be filled by his political cronies? And why is he claiming that it is necessary to take away the collective bargaining rights of state, county, municipal and education unions in order to address the issue?
The governor says that he is doing so because trend lines point to more serious shortfalls in the future. His concerns about those trends are broadly shared, even by the state’s public employee unions, which have agreed to dramatic concessions in order to help avert fiscal problems in the future. The governor anticipates a $3.6 billion deficit in the next fiscal year, while indepedent observers say it might be closer to $3.1 billion. That sounds pretty bad, until you recognize that the previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, had to deal with a $5.94 billion budget deficit.
Doyle proved that it is possible to deal with a serious shortfall without breaking unions or restructuring state government.
But Walker says the state’s financial woes are now so serious that he must go after the unions and dramatically increase his power to appoint cronies to top positions.
What we cannot figure out is this: Why, if the state is in so much trouble, did Walker engineer the enactment of roughly $140 million in new tax breaks for multinational corporations, which the legislature passed in January? Why did he rush to reject federal transportation funding that other states—states with similar or worse fiscal challenges—have rushed to collect? Why, in the very week that he was pushing his budget repair bill, did the governor reject federal broadband development money that Wisconsin’s rural counties have been seeking for years?