7/13/2019 7:30:00 AM Tiffany criticizes state budget spending levels Lawmaker's priority: Protecting the reforms of the past eight years
When Gov. Tony Evers signed the state budget last week, legislative Republicans largely claimed victory, saying they had managed to eliminate what they saw as Evers's worst excesses.
As the days have gone by, though, and lawmakers digested 78 vetoes to the GOP-crafted budget, the victory lap has turned into more of a parade of criticism, with Republican lawmakers saying the budget is heavily biased toward Madison and Milwaukee and, in general, spends too much money.
Northwoods state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua), a member of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, has been a particularly vocal critic, disparaging Evers' vetos of a $250,000 grant for Lakeland STAR School/Academy, of biennial funding for Fab Labs, and of a Department of Workforce Development grant to Northcentral Technical College for workforce training in county jail facilities.
In an interview with The Lakeland Times, Tiffany also expressed worry over the budget's overall spending level, which will rise 5.6 percent over the next two years.
"It concerns me, the 5.6 percent increase in spending," Tiffany said. "That's a hefty increase, the largest increase since (former Gov. Jim) Doyle's last budget. But we had to meet some of the priorities the governor set out."
Still, Tiffany said level should not be approved in the next budget.
"I think it's important as we set up for the next budget that we set some targets early on and not see a 5.6 percent increase," he said. "I would hope that we would be under 4 percent in the next budget. If there's a takeaway going into the next budget, that's the key one, that we need to keep spending under control."
Before Scott Walker became governor, Tiffany said, the size of state government was doubling about every 10 years. In the Walker era, spending increases were controlled so that the size of state government was doubling only about every 20 years.
"I believe that is significant progress, and we need to make sure that we get back to that with the next budget," he said.
That said, Tiffany did say the budget passed by the Legislature aligned with some of Evers' priorities, building some healthy increases into the base of those priorities while maintaining fiscal discipline.
"When the governor introduced his budget, he wanted to put more into education, transportation, and health care, and we agreed with him on that, and so we put more money into all three of those things," Tiffany said. "But we did it without raising taxes and we did it without a $2 billion deficit. We really thought that we met his priorities, but we did it in a more financially responsible manner."
One thing lawmakers did do with the budget is build the Rainy Day Fund to the highest level ever, Tiffany said.
"We put in almost $300 million more into the Rainy Day Fund, and we've got that up to $600 million," he said. "That sets us up well for the next downturn, whenever that happens. The state will be better prepared. We at least took some of the $1.8 billion in additional revenue that's going to come in and put it into the Rainy Day Fund. I thought that was fiscally prudent."
This year, too, Tiffany said, the members of the Joint Finance Committee worked hard to keep policy items with no fiscal impact out of the budget.
"We really made sure that policy stayed out of it," he said. "In the finance committee, we had a lot of debate about policy, and we were really consistent in keeping policy out."
In all, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau identified only seven pure policy items, the fewest in many years. In the end, Tiffany said, the GOP pared the governor's budget proposal down from 1,700 pages to some 500 pages.
"The governor had the liberals' wish list in there," he said. "It was a radical document, there's no other way to put it, and we removed all that stuff and so you see what is truly a budget."
In the interview, Tiffany continued to lament the budget's tilt toward the governor's political base in Madison and Milwaukee, but the senator did say there were a couple of good things in the budget for the Northwoods.
"One is transportation," he said. "The Evers administration proposed a $312 million increase in state highway rehabilitation (SHR) - repairing and maintaining roads - and that's what I consistently hear from my constituents, to repair and maintain what we have before we do expansions. And we are at $320 million SHR, a little higher, and that's a good thing."
By and large, with a few notable exceptions such as 39/90 from Madison to the Illinois border, Tiffany said traffic counts in the state are generally stagnant.
"The people are ahead of us in regards to this," he said. "Sixty percent said that we don't need to raise the gas tax. They know that we should just repair and maintain what we have. Fix what we have. You don't have to do these massive expansions. It's a different era from the 80s and 90s, when traffic counts were steadily going up by 2 to 3 percent a year. Now traffic counts are not climbing that much, so maintain and repair what we have."
The other thing legislative Republicans really fought for was to get more money in local road aids, Tiffany said.
"So we got a 10% increase in general transportation aids for towns, counties, and villages, and then we put another $90 million of additional aid into the local road improvement program that goes to towns and counties," he said.
Tiffany said he was among a few legislators who floated a $130 million proposal for local road improvement for counties and towns, a proposal he said he and his colleagues put out because they did not see a lot of movement for more funding for local roads.
"We felt very strongly that that needed to happen, and we got $90 million, so that will be real helpful for local roads," he said.
Overall, Tiffany said the DOT is getting almost $500 million more and it is now up to the administration to improve Wisconsin's road infrastructure.
"Now it's up to the Evers administration and (DOT secretary) Craig Thompson to deliver better roads here in Wisconsin," he said. "They made it a centerpiece of the campaign - Craig Thompson was one of the lead lobbyists for the road builders, and he went across the state making their case. So they got more money, it's time for them to deliver."
Tiffany said there were incremental reforms required of the DOT in the budget, and he said more were necessary and coming.
"One of my biggest concerns is the number of single-bidder contracts out there," he said. "If you look at the main lets, there were 51 contracts that were let at the state level. Three did not have any bidders. Of the 48 that had bids, 22 had single bidders. We've got good road builders in Wisconsin, but you always want to have healthy competition."
A second big win for the Northwoods, Tiffany said, was increased funding for rural broadband.
"It's very important that we keep rolling it out," he said. "Oneida County is almost covered now. Vilas County has seen some real significant improvements, but we have some other areas that have to catch up."
Tiffany said improvements in broadband have made for some impressive success stories, such as a business that was deciding between Land O' Lakes and Tampa, Florida, and chose Land O' Lakes.
"I think in terms of economic development, you have economic development people fighting with one hand tied behind their backs because of regulations and taxes in the state of Wisconsin," he said. "We were a top 10 tax state, we are highly regulated."
The Legislature has moderated regulations a bit in recent years, Tiffany said, but there's a lot more to be done.
"At least it hasn't gotten worse, generally speaking," he said. "In terms of taxes, we are about in the middle of the pack in the country in terms of overall tax burden."
Those are the two keys in economic development, Tiffany reiterated: "People will consider Wisconsin when you have a decent tax and regulatory environment."
But that's not what Evers proposed in his state budget, Tiffany asserted.
"We made sure what he proposed didn't happen," he said. "Our biggest accomplishment this session will be keeping the administration from achieving its leftist desires."
Tiffany says things were pretty much status quo in the budget for the Department of Natural Resources.
Evers's proposed budget did address CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and how they are regulated, Tiffany said, and the governor asked for the agency's disbanded science bureau to be recreated, which lawmakers rejected.
"We don't need this group of people off doing their own thing and not working within the discipline of the agency, and that's why we ended science services a few years ago," he said.
Overall, though, Tiffany said the governor's budget left much of the DNR unchanged from the previous biennium.
"In fact, there were many on the Left who were very disappointed that the Evers administration did not ask for an increase in license fees, or include something about CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease), and that they did not ask for a 10-year reauthorization for the Stewardship program," he said. "They did not ask for any of those things."
Regarding the Stewardship program, Tiffany said he made a proposal - knowing the program could not be zeroed out - to authorize $23 million over two years, but the final figure was $33 million.
Others, including some Republicans, wanted Stewardship authorized for another 10 years, Tiffany said. Still, the senator said he thinks progress was made this year on the Stewardship debate.
"We highlighted how much debt the program has," he said. "It is becoming clear to more legislators how much this program is costing us. We have almost $800 million in bonding that has to be retired over the next 20 years. If we had reauthorized at $33 million for 10 years, it would have added another $500 million of debt service over the next 20 years."
It's a billion dollar program, and it's all bonded, Tiffany said.
"The public has not been told that Stewardship is all bonded," he said. "It's all borrowed money, and that's something that very few people realize. People think the state is paying cash. They are not paying cash."
The cost has become burdensome, Tiffany said.
"I just put it this way," he said. "Do you want us to spend more money on roads, education, and health care, or do you want us to buy more land? I just don't think the choice is all that hard."
The question is, Tiffany said, how much land is enough for the state to own?
"Something we need to look at in the future is a land cap," he said.
Now that the budget is out of the way, Tiffany says he has a few priorities, not least among them making sure that state agencies follow the law.
"The main thing we can do as a Legislature is to make sure that we don't undo the reforms of the last eight years, reforms that have moved the state forward," he said. "In this budget, we spent more money than perhaps we should have, but we're putting more money into transportation and we're hitting some of the priorities out there that are important. Now our main job is to make sure that the administration doesn't screw it up in the state of Wisconsin. That really is our main job."
That means making sure that administrative agencies follow the law and do not create problems for the average person who is trying to get a permit, and it's important that that be watched closely, Tiffany said.
"Our job is to do no harm, and that's what I am going to be focused on," he said.
Certainly, Tiffany said, the budget would have been a lot different if Scott Walker was still governor, and he said his own priorities would have been different as well.
"If Gov. Walker had been re-elected, my goal was to eliminate 2,000 state government positions, and we could have done it through attrition," he said. "There are numerous vacancies - you have some state agencies that have as much as 10 to 15% vacancies - and I thought it was really important that we begin to downsize state government."
That's still a goal for the future, Tiffany said, and he sees it as necessary policy goal.
"I don't seek that as a punitive measure," he said. "It's not that I don't like state employees or anything like that. The problem we have in Wisconsin is workforce, and when state government is sucking up more qualified people, people who could do other things in the private sector, I think that's the reason we need to reduce the number of state government employees."
The state's private sector has a dearth of employees, Tiffany said.
"It's going to affect economic development in Wisconsin, if private sector employers can't find people to do their work," he said.
Not only that, Tiffany contended, but today's technology means state government can do more with fewer state employees.
"Many things can be accomplished with technology that used to require a lot more people," he said.
The state has about 80,000 state employees, Tiffany observed, and so he said reducing that number by 2,000 is a very small step.
"In the future, we need to right size government, and make sure we're doing it smarter in terms of regulating, and not just adding more people and filling positions because they are there," he said.
We certainly need to downsize both state and federal government, Tiffany said: "It has to happen."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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