March 4, 2011                                                                                                                           A Column of Personal Opinion

By State Senator Sheila Harsdorf

Governor Walker’s Budget and Emergency Budget Repair Bill

 

An unprecedented number of contacts have been coming into legislative offices since the Governor introduced his budget repair bill on February 11th.  I appreciate the thousands of constituents who have contacted me through e-mail, phone calls, letters and personal visits to express their views and share their concerns.

 

As we work to balance the state budget and turn our state economy around, it is critical that we put people back to work.  That is why the first action the Governor took after being sworn in was to call a special session of the Legislature on job creation.  Throughout this special session we have acted to put incentives in place to encourage job growth and make our state a friendlier place to do business. 

 

The Governor's budget repair bill lays the foundation for addressing the financial crisis that our state is in.  While Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, we also have a $136 million shortfall in the current fiscal year that ends June 30th.  I commend the Governor for recognizing the importance of getting our state's fiscal house in order.  The band-aid approaches of the past - tax increases, raiding segregated funds and increasing debt - have only served to delay the tough decisions that must be made if we are going to get back on solid financial ground.

 

The key provisions included in the budget repair bill are intended to provide local governments with the tools and flexibility to manage their budgets and the reductions in state aid that are included in the two-year budget bill the Governor introduced this week.  By requiring state and local government employees to pay a portion of their pension and health insurance premiums, the Governor is hoping to avoid massive layoffs as we work to balance the state budget.  Specifically, the Governor is proposing that state employees pay an estimated 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions and 12.6 percent of their monthly health insurance premiums, bringing their benefits more in line with those of the private sector. 

 

Most of the focus on the budget repair bill has been directed at the proposed changes in collective bargaining for public employees.  Collective bargaining would be limited to wages and total wage increases could not exceed the Consumer Price Index (CPI), unless approved by voters through a referendum. These changes are intended to provide maximum flexibility to local governments and schools as they manage their challenging budgets.  To address specific concerns raised in regards to the importance of maintaining worker protections, I am pleased that we were successful in amending the bill in the Joint Finance Committee to ensure civil service protections for local government employees.  These protections are already in place for state employees. 

 

Another provision in the bill provides flexibility to the Department of Health Services to address the current fiscal year's $150 million plus shortfall in medical assistance.  It is vital that we provide this flexibility in order to sustain these essential services for our most needy and vulnerable citizens.

 

The Governor has proposed bold fundamental reforms to the way government operates in our state.  We can no longer avoid the reality of the current economic crisis that Wisconsin, along with most other states, is facing.  These are challenging times and they require tough choices.  By working to get our fiscal house in order, living within the means of our taxpayers, and encouraging job growth in our state, I remain optimistic that we can move Wisconsin forward. 

 

I appreciate your continued input.  Please stay in touch by calling my office at 1-800-862-1092 or sending me an e-mail to Sen.Harsdorf@legis.wi.gov.