Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Public Service Proponents Dominate Another Public Hearing

It was such a common occurrence at the public hearings held on the so-called "Taxpayer Protection Amendment" that the authors began to convene largely secretive hearings to keep the media and the public out. People who support vibrant public services in Wisconsin showed up in droves this past winter and spring to oppose constitutionally restricting public revenue under the guise of tax cut gimmicks -- and they're back at it this summer.

The Journal-Sentinel reports today that there was unanimous support for the proposed 2006-2007 Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) budget at a public hearing held yesterday. This is the budget that drew the ire of conservative radio talkers and some state legislators from the Milwaukee area just weeks ago because it includes a tax levy increase of 5% (although total expenditures will only increase 1.29% from the previous budget).

The people who showed up at the hearing to support the budget included former MATC students, former teachers, and businesses from around the area who have recently reported a shortage of skilled workers in the Milwaukee area. All of the supporters acknowledged the key role MATC plays in providing an affordable education to students and a host of skilled graduates for area businesses.

According to the JS article: "Board Chairman Jeannette Bell found it gratifying to hear the testimonials from people who benefited from their MATC education but disappointing that none of the people who have been criticizing the college took the opportunity to do so in the public forum."

Disappointed, perhaps, but I'm sure she wasn't too surprised. It's not as easy to create outrage, and subsequently political capital, at a hearing that privileges civil and substantiated discussion.

The MATC budget is expected to be passed by the tech college board later this month.

Anticipating the comments of people who will likely accuse me of not ever seeing a tax increase I didn't like, I should note that I wish the modest 1.29% spending increase didn't need to come on the back of a property tax increase.

But with declining state aid and stagnating federal aid for the state technical colleges in recent years, little room is left to do much else -- unless, that is, we want to sacrifice low tuition.

And while salaries for MATC instructors should be investigated more thoroughly, the budget process is not the place to do it. That's a policy issue that needs to be fleshed out separately. Simply underfunding instructor salaries without changing the actual instructor pay scale is not a fiscally sound route to go.

Plus, just capping instructor salaries isn't even a cure-all for expenditure increases. While the cost of instruction (which incorporates instructor salaries) increased 10% between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 at MATC, the physical plant costs (which includes building maintenance, utility costs, etc.) increased at a far higher rate of nearly 33% over the same time span.

To put it differently, increased physical plant costs have accounted for 43% of the total increase in expenditures at MATC over the last three years, while increased instructional costs have only accounted for 25% of the total expenditure increase (see here, page 27).

Increases in physical plant expenditures are unavoidable costs that require additional revenue. When that revenue is not coming from inter-governmental aid, which has actually decreased in recent years, it's going to come from the revenue sources that the technical colleges do control -- tuition and property taxes.

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