October 22, 2008

Budget Shortfall

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Growing up, I was taught that you only spend what you can afford, and that, in tough times, you tighten your belt and save where you can. Those lessons might seem quaint to some people, but they’re the cornerstones of smart budgeting. Anyone who ignores them – whether it’s families, businesses, or even government – is sure to run into a fiscal mess sooner or later.

Like most of the country, Wisconsin is going through significant economic hardships right now. Actually, we’re better off than many other states, particularly in terms of the housing market here. Still, there’s no disputing that the next several months will be a major test. That much was made clear last week when Governor Doyle announced an anticipated $3 billion shortfall in the state’s budget.

To be clear, the $3 billion is just an estimate. Things could get better if our economy picks up. A lot of the projected shortfall comes from estimates about future sales tax, corporate tax, and unemployment figures. Those numbers are all subject to change depending on the state of the economy. If the estimates are even close to being on the mark, though, all of us – from families to government departments – will have to make some tough budgetary decisions.

Governor Doyle took the first step in that direction by asking all state agencies to submit new 2009-11 budget requests that incorporate 10% spending cuts. Now, spending cuts don’t have to mean service cuts. More often than not, there are ways to administer services more efficiently, and I’ll certainly be looking into that in the months ahead. In areas like corrections, for example, we can reform state policies to encourage cheaper and more effective treatment options, rather than incarceration, for certain non-violent offenders. Similar money-saving measures are available in fields like education and transportation.

But, with a $3 billion shortfall, fiscal efficiency might not be enough. The hard truth is that we’re going to have to reconsider how we administer many services. What those services are is still to be determined. Over the next several months, my colleagues and I will begin deliberating over the 2009-11 budget. Of course, a lot of our considerations will be based on Governor Doyle’s executive budget proposal, to be submitted sometime early next year. Still, there will be considerable preparation long before anything concrete is put before us.

That’s why I need to hear from you. Whatever choices we make in the coming months, they’re going to impact your day-to-day lives. So it’s vital that you get in touch with elected officials and let us know what your priorities are. The coming months are going to make for some tough budgetary times. But if we come together as a community and stick by our priorities, we can come out of this shortfall better and stronger than before.