January 28, 2008

Weathering the Coming Storm

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Many Wisconsin residents are no stranger to buckling down and tightening their belt straps.  With the loss of key industries in our state, we have struggled to reposition ourselves to keep food on the table.  As individuals, we have begun to re-tool, re-educate, and re-evaluate our priorities, making hard decisions between needs and wants. And now we know, we are not alone. 

Recent reports indicate that America’s is in the midst of an economic downturn, looking for ways to inject much needed life into our national economy.  Wisconsin, like many other states, is preparing to weather the coming storm.  In efforts to address the changing winds, we have moved to cut our state’s taxing and spending.  It may not be enough to stave of the effects of a recession entirely, but will hopefully allow us to emerge from the looming economic clouds with key state services intact. 

As a state, we will have to make due with less revenue and figure out the best way to more efficiently spend the money we have. Already taking steps to deal with a possible $300–400 million budget shortfall, Governor Doyle and legislators will continue to look for the best ways to get Wisconsin residents through this period.  Often programming cuts are discussed and we all begin to look for areas to trim some fat.  I am hopeful that we will also look for some proactive ways to better position Wisconsinites to compete for limited positions and advance in under-represented fields.

One area we can make better investments in is education.  In recent years, we’ve spent billions of dollars to reduce class sizes, improve infrastructure, and redesign curricula, with the goal of raising our children’s performance.  Better schools are important.  However, if the goal is to not only improve performance and create a competent and well balanced workforce, studies show that efforts are also needed outside the classroom.  Statistically, we get the biggest educational bang for our buck by investing in early childhood programs, after-school and summer programming, healthcare, and housing for children around Wisconsin.  By focusing on socioeconomic factors, along with educational reform, we can get better results for a fraction of the money we currently spend.

On the other end of the spectrum, we must also look at what we spend on corrections in this state.  Since 1990, Wisconsin’s prison population has more than doubled, thanks chiefly to an increase in drug- and alcohol-related offenses.  But incarceration isn’t an effective way to treat these problems.  At an annual cost of $28,000 per prisoner, it’s also obscenely expensive.  Instead of simply warehousing drug and alcohol offenders, we should divert prison funding into community-based substance abuse treatment.  Investing in community-based AODA programs could save up to $43 million, free up space and resources in our correctional institutions, and give thousands of non-violent offenders the meaningful help they need to deal with their problems.  We need this group of potential tax payers back on their feet and contributing to Wisconsin’s growth.

The evidence supporting these proposals has been available for years, but we haven’t acted on it.  The coming months will require us to think creatively and broadly.  It won’t be easy, but the good news is that economic improvement and government efficiency aren’t partisan issues.