May 27, 2008

The Budget Repair Bill

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

As a lifelong Milwaukee resident, I know all about what hard times mean to working class families.  I’ve witnessed mothers and fathers choose between paying for gas and paying for food.  There are untold stories of folks making decisions every day to drop out of high school, not because they don’t care about education, but because they needed to help provide at home.  These aren’t easy choices to make.  Oftentimes, though, it becomes a question of survival. 

Right now, Wisconsin is at that point.  The economy is in such a bad state and our revenue stream has diminished so much that we are forced to deal with the immediate future.  As a state, of course our long range planning needs to better account for the economic changes we are facing.  However, the reality is, that just like many Wisconsin families hit with unexpected price hikes and decreased funds, we must figure out how to get by with our current state budget right now.

That means making cuts to major programming areas like transportation, education, and workforce development.  It means deferring as many payments as we possibly can.  It means praying for the best but preparing for the worst.  Essentially, it means doing exactly what any cash-strapped family would do to resolve a debt: Finding any and every way to keep our heads above water.

A lot of people have criticized the recently-passed budget repair bill for not doing enough for the long term.  Some writers have noted that it passes on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to future legislatures, without doing anything to resolve the underlying problems.  Others say that it makes irresponsible cuts to vital state programs, all the while neglecting the impact such cuts might have on the future.

Those criticisms are all valid, to some extent.  I don’t know of anyone anywhere who thinks the budget repair bill is the perfect long-term solution.  I can’t think of a single person who relishes the idea of cutting spending in areas like transportation or education.  But we don’t have the time to haggle over the best long-term solution right now; nor do we have the luxury of coming up with new funding sources for all the different state departments.

The truth is that the budget repair bill wasn’t meant to be some sort of panacea.  It’s not a tool to cure everything that’s ailing our government and our economy.  That sort of long-term, from-the-ground-up solution is a task that would take months and months to complete.  We didn’t have months, though.  If we’d waited any longer, contracts wouldn’t have been fulfilled and local governments would have been left without any sense of the funding available to them.

Was the budget repair bill perfect? Of course not.  Our state was drowning in debt and the Legislature patched together a life preserver that will, hopefully, keep us afloat through the next session, and buy us some additional time to work on more permanent solutions. 

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