Monday, February 13, 2006

Dems Need More Than Just a Critique of Revenue Restrictions

The Crossroads section of the Journal-Sentinel yesterday presented a point-counterpoint regarding the revenue restrictions amendment—or the Bride of TABOR, as some have dubbed it—recently proposed by Republican leaders. On the pro-revenue restrictions side was amendment co-author Rep. Jeff Wood (R-Chippewa Falls). On the anti-revenue restrictions side was Wauwatosa alderman and assistant professor of fiscal policy at UW-Oshkosh, Craig Maher.

While Wood presented nothing more than a sales pitch for the amendment, seeped in disingenuous populist language, Maher’s commentary was aimed at the larger fiscal policy situation facing local governments across Wisconsin. While it doesn’t provide quite the rhetorical punch that Wood’s piece does, the points raised by Maher are useful for the anti-revenue restrictions side of the public debate.

No one doubts the fiscal problems facing many local governments around the state from counties to municipalities to school districts. The revenue restrictions amendment proposed by state Republican leaders chooses to address those fiscal problems by taking control away from local governments. What Maher proposes, on the contrary, is to solve the fiscal problems by giving local governments more control.

The foundation of Maher’s argument for more local control is that currently the revenue sharing system that local governments in Wisconsin rely upon makes them too dependent on the state for budgetary issues. When economic downturns hit, the state must then not only deal with its own fiscal problems, but also local governments rely upon it to help solve their fiscal problems. By giving local governments the ability to find creative solutions to the fiscal problems they face, Maher asserts that it would allow local units “to be more accountable for their budgeting practices in two ways: They would no longer be able to blame the state for the lack of growth in aid payments and…communities would be forced to budget accordingly.”

Instead of providing more local control, the revenue restrictions amendment does just the opposite by limiting the ability local governments currently have to raise revenues. “From a local perspective,” writes Maher, “it is frustrating that while state lawmakers continue to put pressure on [local governments], our decision-making is usurped.”

Of course, state Republican leaders like Wood try to argue that the revenue restrictions amendment empowers individual taxpayers by taking power away from local governments, but that’s far from the case. The power that’s being taken away from local governments through this amendment doesn’t go directly to the taxpayers; rather, some of it goes to the state and the rest just gets eliminated.

Wood and others make the claim that forcing local governments to undertake referendums in order to go above the revenue limits imposed by the amendment allows taxpayers to “take ownership of their government and its institutions.” In reality, the structure of these referendums is determined by the state legislature. And based upon the way the state legislature categorizes the referendums, it has the power to limit the amount of revenue that can be generated through them. This begs the question: If it’s solely about empowering the individual taxpayer, why allow the state to put limits on how much money local governments can ask constituents for above the amendment-imposed restrictions?

Liberals and moderate Republicans would be smart to champion proposals like the one made by Maher, in addition to critiquing the extreme revenue restrictions amendment. Too often Democrats get caught playing defense on proposals put forth by conservative Republicans. What’s more, simply rejecting the revenue restrictions amendment doesn’t solve the fiscal problems many communities around Wisconsin are facing. This is an issue Dems could win if they united behind a strong proposal such as the one posited by Maher. But will they?

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