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OPINION - A baby-steps budget

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The state budget isn’t a grand, visionary plan for Wisconsin. It’s more of an incremental document. Significant, but small.

Consider the income tax cut. For most families, it’s about $10 a month. That’s tiny. But it also sends the message about what direction taxes are headed in our state. Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa can’t say that. Their taxes are going up. (It is also ironic that opponents of the tax cuts argue simultaneously that the cut is so small that you and I will hardly notice, but the state absolutely, positively cannot do without the money.)

Wisconsin will begin the new budget cycle with a small surplus. We will need a growing economy to avoid a small structural deficit when the bi-annual budget runs its course.

School choice takes a baby-step forward. Only 500 students will enter the state-wide program this year; 1,000 a year later. But the program does now have statewide reach. The numbers of students allowed will certainly go up, as the number of applicants will certainly be overwhelming.

Unmarried couples who live together out of wedlock will now have both incomes count towards welfare benefits. That’s a reasonable plan to control costs. Unemployment requirements are being tightened. There will be a work requirement for the able-bodied to get food stamps. We’ve made a trade off for Badgercare: only families below the poverty line will qualify. Those who are over will get a federal subsidy to buy their health insurance through the Obamacare exchanges. The trade off is that health insurance will be available to everyone in Wisconsin, not just families with children.

The governor’s veto of a return of bail bondsmen to the state makes sense. There’s no indication that our court system is broken without them, and the unauthored add-on to the state budget reeks of an insider’s move.

I’m probably a hypocrite on the Skyward-Infinite Campus amendment. If Skyward won the school software contract outright, I probably wouldn’t care about the issue. Still, the governor landed on the side of the state not picking winners-and-losers. That’s the right place to be.

The disappointment in the budget is the decision not to evict the Center For Investigative Journalism from its free office space at the UW-Madison campus. The governor says the university trustees should decide who gets office space. Not quite. Suppose the UW in its wisdom wants to allow a state-government-civil-disobedience training center on campus, or a NAMBLA chapter, or a recruiting office of the Communist Party. Wouldn’t state lawmakers be right to overrule the poor judgment of UW leadership?  The legislature has already substituted its own judgment on the tuition-freeze issue.

The journalism center often drafts left-leaning feature pieces that are picked up newspapers around the state. The governor should realize that his politics are irreconcilable with the people he’d be angering by making the Center get its own office space at market rates. Better to do the right thing. Let the journalists client-newspapers pay for the stores they run, and let the Center pay rent.

But it’s a small issue that’s a small part of a budget that takes small steps in the right direction.

Chris Conley