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Commentary: Responsible budgeting is best way to dig out of hole

Craig Thompson

Will Rogers coined the saying, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Wisconsin’s legislative leaders should heed this advice as they work to pass a budget in the middle of one of the worst fiscal crises Wisconsin has ever faced.

The answers they come up with undoubtedly will be painful and unpopular. Avoiding difficult decisions – on their part and on ours as citizens of Wisconsin – is a large part of what got Wisconsin into this mess in the first place. And trying to ease the pain of making tough calls by resorting to accounting gimmicks and transferring money helped put us in this dire situation.

When it comes to transferring money to solve a budget problem, Wisconsin has raided its pool of transportation money to the tune of more than one billion dollars over the past six years. Each time the transfer was billed as a one-time shift that would help us get over a temporary shortfall in the state’s general pool of money until the economy improved.

These transfers not only hurt our transportation infrastructure, but they -– along with other gimmicks –- contributed to the precarious position in which our lawmakers find themselves today.  Our legislators face real-life choices and an inability to accept that fact – on their part and ours – has led us to where we are today.

The proper mix of cutting programs or services and raising additional revenue will remain in the eye of the beholder as the budget is debated and after it is signed into law. There are compelling arguments on all sides. At a time when households across the state are experiencing their own fiscal crises, it seems unfair, cruel even, to burden families and workers with increased taxes or fees. On the other hand, the recession creates situations wherein government services are needed by more people. Cutting investment in prevention programs, education and job training will have a negative impact on all of us.

I don’t envy our lawmakers the task of striking the proper balance in this budget.

The nationwide recession is contributing to Wisconsin’s financial crisis. But it is also a fact, as reported by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, that Wisconsin is one of only four states in the country with a Generally Accepted Accounting Principles deficit in 2007. Wisconsin’s GAAP deficit is the largest on a per capita basis. In addition, according to a November 2008 CNN report, Wisconsin was tied for the third-worst bond rating in the country. The state’s bond rating outlook at the time was negative.

These facts speak to how Wisconsin is faring relative to other states during this recession — not good.

While we most likely will not agree with all of the answers that ultimately emerge from Madison in the coming days, we need to urge our elected representatives to budget responsibly and we must remember our unwillingness to hear bad news from them in the past has put us where we are today.

Craig Thompson is the executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin Inc.

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