Wisconsin can be proud that more people — over 300 — are running for the state legislature this year than in any gubernatorial year in at least two decades.
Now it’s our turn. Candidates are knocking on our doors, sharing brochures that all too often make unrealistic promises. Let’s greet them with an election-year resolution to encourage informed discussion of real issues with unprecedented candor.
The first step in keeping this resolution is to identify and understand the challenges Wisconsin faces. As it has in past election years, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) is working to educate candidates and voters. WISTAX is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving state and local government through citizen education.
One way we do this is by providing factual information to every legislative hopeful, regardless of party or political bent. WISTAX briefing packets arrived several weeks ago, providing detailed information on such issues as the state deficit, prison costs, schools, public employee benefits, and unemployment compensation.
Another way we do this is by giving voters clear, succinct background information on major issues. The latest issue of our monthly Taxpayer magazine does this and suggests possible voter questions for candidates. You can get a free copy by going to our website, www.wistax.org.
Armed with this information, we must ask candidates specific questions to determine who would best represent us. No issue is more important than the economy. Jobs and output have declined. State per capita personal income is 6 percent below the nation’s. We need to ask candidates what Wisconsin government can or should do to boost the economy.
Taxes are another popular issue. State and local taxes claim 11.8 percent of personal income, 13th highest among the states. Part of the reason we tax ourselves more is that we make below-average use of fees and rank low in receipt of federal dollars. Ask candidates what combination of fees and taxes they think is best to fund government.
A third area of broad interest is schools. With enrollments declining in many places, districts face state-imposed revenue caps. Yet labor, transportation, and utility costs are increasing. The revenue-cost gap presents tough choices for school leaders. WISTAX research shows that small, sparsely populated districts spend more per student than other districts. Ask candidates what can be done to address the problems such districts face.
Higher education is a related issue. As state support as a share of total college and university spending has declined, students are paying for a larger part of their education. Ask candidates what share of costs they think students should pay.
Wisconsin has good roads, according to federal reports. Wisconsin spent $627 per capita on highways in 2008, 12th highest nationally. Transportation is funded through “earmarked” gas taxes and registration fees that, in recent years, state officials have taken to balance the budget. Ask candidates which of the following approaches to transportation finance they support: increased taxes and fees, more borrowing, an end to using transportation dollars for other purposes, or less road construction.
Finally, there is the issue of state deficits. In 2011-12, the new governor and legislature will inherit a $1.2 billion structural imbalance, the largest since 2003-04 and the second largest ever. This will require tough decisions about cutting costs and raising revenues. Ask candidates if they are committed to a truly balanced budget and what specific steps they would take to ensure it.
If candidates and voters make a concerted effort to be better informed this year, and if we ask candidates for specific answers to our questions, the result can only be a better legislature come January.
Todd A. Berry is president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.