Political Corruption Cause of State Budget Mess

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

January 14, 2003

Wisconsin’s state budget is a monument to fiscal mismanagement. We’ve got a monster deficit – at least $2.5 billion and some say as much as $4.3 billion – a deficit so large that it looks to be the nation’s biggest per capita budget shortfall.

One way out of this mess is to take a meat cleaver to state spending. But that means slaughtering more than a few sacred cows, and the politicians keep reassuring everyone that they won’t eliminate state aid to local communities that helps pay for staple services like garbage collection, snow removal, and police and fire protection. They insist that education is off the chopping block. And they promise to remain tough on crime, meaning state government’s biggest growth industry – corrections – will keep right on growing.

Another way out is to raise taxes. Who'll do it? "Not I," says the new governor. "No way, no how," say legislators of every political stripe.

Knowing that neither spending cuts nor tax increases translate into votes, most of the Capitol crowd typically resort to sleight of hand. An accounting gimmick one time, squander the tobacco settlement for a quick fix the next. This time, don’t be surprised if they try borrowing from state pension funds.

A few of the more enterprising wishful thinkers at the Capitol will tell you we can grow our way out of the budget disaster. The problem with the economic growth solution is that at best it will produce results a few years down the road. Lawmakers are constitutionally required to balance the budget this year. No matter how brilliant the economic development strategy, it does nothing to solve the problem at hand.

There is an easy and fiscally responsible way to solve our budget woes. Well, easy is in the eye of the beholder. It is the most difficult imaginable solution for elected officials to embrace.

They could say no to their biggest campaign contributors.

A new Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study shows that breaks and policy favors state lawmakers furnish their most generous special interest donors carry an annual price tag of over $4.6 billion – far more than Wisconsin’s projected two-year state budget deficit. These tax breaks and loopholes, pork barrel spending projects, lucrative state contracts and other favors cost the average taxpayer $1,200 a year.

That’s no misprint. One thousand two hundred dollars per taxpayer each and every year. That’s the hidden tax we all pay to keep big campaign contributors happy. It’s the price we pay for political graft.

Among other things, our findings expose the hypocrisy of lawmakers who oppose campaign finance reform on the grounds that it is inappropriate to ask taxpayers to pay for political campaigns.

Taxpayers are already paying through the nose for political campaigns. We are paying dearly for a corrupt system where elected state lawmakers trade public policy for the donations they need to bankroll increasingly expensive election campaigns.

The leading campaign finance reform bill in Wisconsin carries a price tag of just over $1 per taxpayer. Taxpayers pay for political campaigns one way or the other. You can pay for them directly through public financing, which for a buck can wean public officials from the corrupting influence of wealthy special interest donors. Or you can pay much more – $1,200 by our estimate – for the favors our elected representatives do for their big campaign contributors.

You pick.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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