Tag Archives: budget cuts

Analysis: GOP’s deficit reduction promises are unfeasible without tax increases and program cuts that they’ll never support

Thanks to Congress’ recent tax-and-spending spree, Republicans vowing to balance the budget will have to raise taxes and propose far deeper cuts than the public would accept.

If the GOP should won the White House in 2016, those promises — the same ones they make in every election cycle — are likely to come back and haunt them. The last president to balance the budet was Democrat Bill Clinton, who presided over an era of great prosperity that’s not likely to be equaled in the near future. 

In fact, the weakening economy that the nation is currently experiencing means Republicans will have to dig even further into the budget to find sufficient spending cuts to balance the budget, according to the latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The budget — a non-binding wish list of cuts and policies — was already unrealistic, promising cuts that lawmakers have never shown they’d be willing to make.

Last year, for instance, Republicans promised more than $5 trillion in spending cuts over a decade. Instead, they worked with President Barack Obama to add about $750 billion to the deficit over the decade through a mix of spending increases and permanent tax cuts. Even a token effort to curb the federal crop insurance program was immediately reversed after a revolt by farm state lawmakers.

Now, the dismal fiscal picture, budget experts say, would mean Republicans would have to slash more than $2 trillion over 10 years, with the most draconian cuts required in the final years. That’s assuming they will still try to balance the budget.

“Realistically speaking, that’s just not going to happen,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington group that advocates for lower deficits.

With Social Security, the Pentagon and most of Medicare insulated politically from cuts, Republicans are likely to call for even further reductions to programs like Medicaid, domestic agency budgets, student loan subsidies and food stamps.

The GOP chairmen of the House and Senate Budget panels insist they will find a way.

“It’s not only realistic but essential,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said of balancing the budget. “This country is going to be bankrupt if we don’t do something.”

Under Congress’ arcane budget process, lawmakers vote first on a broad, non-binding outline called a budget resolution — which is akin to the blueprints for a house — and then use follow-up legislation to fill in the details. The second-step of votes to implement the budget are invariably more difficult than the first.

Congress does a lot more bragging about budget blueprints than actually trying to enact them. House Republicans boast but they’ve never drafted legislation detailing how they would turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for most future retirees or cut Medicaid funding by about one-fifth — and force many millions of people from health coverage or nursing home care.

Even architects of the budget acknowledge that there’s no stomach to actually try to impose its cuts.

“The critical mass does not yet exist in the country or the Congress that recognizes that we need to save and strengthen and secure these mandatory programs,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga. Price was referring to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, whose mandatory budgets grow automatically unless Congress cuts them.

So in some ways the budget process is perfect for politicians: It gives them a chance to tell voters they’re cutting spending even as they avoid the politically dangerous votes required to actually do it.

The budget process also fits into Speaker Paul Ryan’s vision for using the House agenda to tell voters what they’ll get if Republicans win the White House. The annual budget debate will come before efforts to replace the health care law or reveal the party’s plans to update the loophole-clogged tax code after five years of controlling the House.

Conspicuously left off the agenda? Emphasizing spending cuts, even as the deficit has begun growing again and the latest estimates reveal trillion-dollar deficits returning in just a few years.

“Clearly that’s going to take a Republican president because this president has continued to kick the can down the road and I see no change in his behavior,” Ryan, R-Wis., said recently.

But it’s by no means clear that balancing the budget will be a top priority for presidential candidates who have promised big tax cuts and aren’t really talking about the issue on the campaign trail. If there is a GOP president next year, he will have to answer questions about living up to the balanced-budget promises of Republicans in Congress.

If a GOP president embraces a balanced budget, they’ll have to offer an enormously difficult set of cuts to Republican lawmakers unschooled in what balancing the budget really means.

“The magnitude of the policy changes that you would have to implement to achieve the savings that are promised in the budget — I don’t think there’s an appreciation for the magnitude of those changes,” said Neil Bradley, a former top House GOP aide who now works for the Conservative Reform Network, which offers policy advice to GOP candidates and lawmakers.

Obama submits his budget Feb. 9, and House and Senate Republicans promise floor debates on their alternatives in March.

Fight against Walker budget cuts

The state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee is vetting Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts to the UW System, environmental protections and services for the elderly and disabled.

It’s not an exaggeration to say our futures are at stake: quality, affordable education for young people and returning students; the beautiful lands and streams we love but often take for granted; and the long-term care needs of our elderly and disabled family members and neighbors. 

I’m dismayed by people accepting Walker’s drastic changes as inevitable. Walker’s cuts are not inevitable and it’s self-defeating to assume that nothing can be done.

Public pressure already has succeeded in getting the Joint Finance Committee to nix the proposal that would have stripped policy-making powers from the Department of Natural Resources and Agriculture boards. Some Republican legislators are now saying they plan to reduce Walker’s $300 million cut to UW campuses and $127 million cut to K-12 schools.

Joint Finance co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling was rattled by UW chancellors using the media to announce huge cuts in personnel. “This is sort of a tactic to get people to lobby us,” she huffed. Yes, and an effective one! 

Corporations pay lobbyists to pursue their profit-making schemes, in many cases writing the laws they benefit from. Those hucksters are ubiquitous and made welcome in our state Capitol. But when average folks speak up to defend their public land and institutions, their opinions are considered an imposition.

I say let’s keep imposing ourselves. Activate your social network. Call, email or send letters to Walker, Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Darling and Rep. John Nygren and your state senator and representative.

Contact Walker at 115 E. Capitol, Madison, WI 53702 or at 608-266-1212. To find your legislators’ contact info, go to http://legis.wisconsin.gov and type in your address. 

Snail mail is slower but has greater impact. Postcards and letters have a physical presence, especially if politicians get a lot of them.

Written communications can be as short as “I am opposed to budget cuts in the university system so please vote against them” to longer letters that include facts and arguments against specific cuts. Supportive facts can be found on the websites of organizations such as the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Disability Rights Wisconsin, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Planned Parenthood, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and UW Alumni groups.

Never be abusive but be firm and state that you vote in every election.

You can also take a personal approach and describe how the cuts will affect your education or your children’s education, the state parks you enjoy, or the care of your grandparents. If you have kids, nephews or nieces, throw a letter-writing party. Have them drop the letters in the mailbox with you. Doing it together sets an example and teaches them we all need to stand up for what we believe. 

In the longer term, we must prepare for voter ID and make sure everyone we know has proper ID and is registered. We need to support, through volunteer time and donations, the grassroots groups working their hearts out to protect our lands, schools and people. 

The fight to preserve public resources and oversight is the fight for Wisconsin’s future. Budget debate and floor votes only extend through May, so please act today.

UW regents OK out-of-state, grad student tuition increase

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has approved raising tuition for out-of-state undergraduate and some graduate students at most of the system’s four-year schools as the campuses prepare to absorb massive cuts looming under Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal.

The package calls for raising tuition by hundreds of dollars this fall at eight campuses — La Crosse, Milwaukee, Parkside, Platteville, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout and Whitewater. Tuition for UW-Madison nonresident students and graduate students in a half-dozen programs, including the medical and business schools, will go up by thousands of dollars by the beginning of the 2016 academic year.

The regents approved the satellite campus increases on a voice vote late last week at UW-Waukesha. The only dissenter was Regent Tony Evers, who doubles as the state’s K-12 public schools superintendent. He said he was worried the increases would hurt teachers looking to return to school.

Debate over UW-Madison’s increases was more in-depth. Chancellor Rebecca Blank originally proposed a four-year plan that would have raised UW-Madison’s out-of-state undergraduate tuition by $10,000 to $35,523 and tuition in the six graduate programs by thousands of dollars more by 2018.

The regents’ education committee voted Thursday to implement only the first two years of the plan, which translates to a $6,000 jump for nonresident undergraduates and spares the graduate students as much as an additional $10,000. Committee members said they were worried the economy could change and approving four years of increases could anger legislators.

Jose Vasquez cast the lone vote against the UW-Madison increases Friday. He said the regents should just approve the four-year plan, saying he’s convinced students will pay it and he can’t see what could change so dramatically in two years.

Margaret Farrow, an education committee member, said if the regents approved the third and fourth year, “there would be personality reactions” at the state Capitol. She also said she didn’t want students to plan for four years of increases only to see new regents come in and change the rates.

Campus officials are bracing for a $300 million system-wide funding cut that Republican Gov. Scott Walker has included in his budget proposal for the two years that end July 1, 2017. In return, the governor would decouple the system from state oversight.

System officials have long sought such flexibility but insist the cut would devastate their campuses. They anticipate they won’t be able to raise resident undergraduate tuition to offset the cuts. Legislators froze those rates two years ago, and Walker’s budget calls for extending the freeze for another two years.

Charles Pruitt, vice chairman of the education committee, told the regents the changes are designed to cope with the cuts and align tuition with the national market. According to system data, UW-Madison’s current nonresident tuition is about $2,500 less than the Big Ten median.

System President Ray Cross, who has been trying to persuade legislators to reduce the cuts before the budget is finalized later this spring, pointed out that Blank introduced her increases last summer months before Walker revealed his spending plan.

He also took issue with Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, vice chairman of the Senate’s universities committee and one of the system’s toughest critics. Nass issued a statement Thursday accusing UW-Madison of “mugging” nonresidents and Blank of attacking middle-class families.

“I am miffed at the personal attacks that have happened,” Cross said.

Farrow said she doesn’t understand why people are worried about raising out-of-state tuition.

“I’m concerned about our resident students,” Farrow said. “I have no sympathy at all for out-of-state students.”

Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen said in an email that Nass is glad Cross is miffed. He said Nass wants to see real action to cut costs and cap tuition and fees.

Slippery slope: Budget imperils natural resources | WiG cover story

Despite Wisconsin’s deep partisan divide, there’s one area of policy on which the state’s Republicans and Democrats emphatically agree: conservation.

Maintaining the state’s pristine, spectacular natural resources is that rare goal that rises above political wrangling. A bipartisan statewide poll released on March 18 by the Nature Conservancy, an environmental protection group, showed that Wisconsinites of both parties overwhelmingly support continuing state funding for land, water and wildlife conservation. Seventy-six percent of Republicans, 88 percent of independents and 97 percent of Democrats said the state should continue making such investments.

The findings create something of a dilemma for the state’s Republican leaders. They are faced with a budget presented by Gov. Scott Walker that’s anything but supportive of Wisconsin’s great outdoors.

Walker already has cut current funding for the state’s bipartisan Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, a public land acquisition and access program that reserves woodland, wetlands and shorelines for the public. His proposed biennial budget goes even farther, calling for the stewardship program to be suspended for 13 years. 

The cut represents less than 0.5 percent of Wisconsin’s General Purpose Revenue expenditures — an amount smaller than the cost of a fishing license or state park sticker for every resident in the state.

“Nearly 9 in 10 Wisconsin voters believe that, even when the budget is tight, the state should continue to invest in protecting Wisconsin’s land, water and wildlife,” said Lori Weigel from Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the survey on behalf of the conservancy. ”Most voters also said that one of the best things state government does is protect Wisconsin’s natural areas, outdoor recreation and history in state parks and other public lands.”

‘Taking the public out’

Given Walker’s policy inclinations, conservationists fear that suspending public land acquisition puts the state on a slippery slope that will lead to the sale of priceless wilderness and green spaces. The state’s park lovers interpret other items in the budget as a move toward privatization of the system, an approach that’s been tried — and has failed — in other states.

In his budget bill, Walker proposes cutting all general purpose tax funding of the park budgets, which currently amounts to $4.6 million. The governor apparently wants either to force the system to become self-supporting or to privatize its management, which would turn the parks and their concessions — gift shops, firewood sales, etc. — over to for-profit businesses, say critics of the cut.

“Self-sufficiency is a noble cause, but it cannot be accomplished in the present year,” wrote Bill Zager, president of the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, in a letter to supporters. The proposed cut, he said, would prevent the parks from functioning at a level that users expect, even with the huge network of volunteers who have helped the parks survive prior budget cuts.

The parks once received 50 percent of their support from the state, but that amount has already declined to 21 percent, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

“The parks are owned by the state’s taxpayers. You can’t just say that you don’t want to take care of them,” Zager said. Members of FWSP groups already pitch in to help with the costs. The groups have raised $540,000 and provided nearly 187,000 volunteer hours to help maintain the parks.

Zager said his group is in favor of accepting corporate donations, which are already helping to pay for park improvements. “But there is not a mechanism in place to make (corporate donations) work for day-to-day operating costs at this time,” he pointed out in his letter.

Like other groups, his is opposed to selling naming rights of state lands to corporate sponsors. 

To help make up for the loss of state funding, the proposed budget would increase fees for an annual state park pass from $25 to $28 and raise camping fees by $2 per night. Visitors would have to pay an additional fee of $9.70 just to make reservations. While that might not seem like much, it would deter poorer families from visiting the parks and reduce the amount of money that visitors spend at local businesses.

Handing the parks over to private management would raise fees further, since companies are structured to make profits.

“The park system is really there for the average Wisconsinite who doesn’t have the ability to buy lakefront property,” said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “The parks provide an opportunity for the people to enjoy nature. Walker really is creating a state for the elite … where the rich have things and the rest of us don’t.”

Another controversial item in Walker’s budget calls for turning the Department of Natural Resources into an advisory board with no decision-making authority. That role would be shifted to Walker’s administration. 

Conservationists are not happy about the proposal. Walker’s record has stirred intense anger among environmentalists. He eased the mine permitting process after Gogebic Taconite made a $700,000 donation to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which benefits state Republicans, and he’s suing President Barack Obama’s administration over new regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants.

“There’s a lot of outrage,” Hiniker said. “Walker is taking the public out of the management of state resources. Wisconsin’s land management was always built on the idea that we’d have public input and a public voice to make sure that politics didn’t get in the way of managing the parks in the best interest of the environment. Management of our resources used to be beyond politics. Now we have a management style that allows all kinds of political issues to trump the people’s interests.”

Anti-science purges

An additional item in Walker’s budget that is causing anger calls for the elimination of 66 positions from the DNR — one-quarter of them held by scientists whose research and knowledge are essential to properly managing the state’s wildlife and natural resources, from bobcat populations to old growth forests.

Critics question whether Walker’s attack on the DNR — and its scientists in particular — is payback for the agency’s work on climate change, which state Republicans deny is occurring, as well as for the limits DNR officials have set on hunting and their opposition to mining operations that use caustic chemicals near sensitive wetlands and sources of drinking water.

In 2013, Walker signed the Koch brothers “no climate change action” pledge, according to Jim Rowen’s blog The Political Environment. When Walker appointed real estate developer Cathy Stepp to head the DNR, he openly crowed that she was tapped because he wanted someone with “a chamber of commerce mentality,” Rowen wrote.

Critics contend that Walker doesn’t want science getting in the way of profits for his cronies. Whatever the motivation, it’s impossible to detangle science from environmental management.

“Any real natural resources protection is based on sound science,” Amber Meyer Smith, director of programs and government relations for Clean Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The more science you remove from the process, the more politics you add.”

Meyer Smith told the Journal Sentinel that the science cuts to the DNR and Walker’s proposed $300 million budget slash to the University of Wisconsin system share a troubling characteristic — hostility toward intellectual work. 

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann holds out hope that Walker’s cuts to conservation and the park system can yet be avoided. She’s heard criticism of Walker’s plan from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. “People like (Assembly Speaker) Robin Voss are being very vocal in opposing this,” she said.

“Right now, even money that has already been approved and allocated for land purchases isn’t being spent,” Schumann said. “They’re being held up even though the money is there. First (Walker) cut funding to the stewardship program, then didn’t make the land purchases and now there’s a complete freeze. There’s this slippery slope that makes you wonder where it’s all headed.”

Hiniker is less optimistic that the governor can be persuaded to change his stance.

“For one month, 100,000 people were chanting outside the Capitol and it didn’t change a damn thing,” Hiniker said. “Walker has shown that he’s immune to protests.”

Parks’ economic role

A majority of those surveyed said that protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources is important to a healthy economy, and the numbers agree. The stewardship program protects many of the natural resources on which Wisconsin’s $13 billion tourism industry, $22 billion forestry industry and $4 billion hunting and fishing industry depend, according to WLCV. Recreation also is high on the list of amenities that attract businesses to the state.

Park visitors help support rural economies that have few other ways to generate revenue.

“When a family goes to a state park, they spend an average of $230 on the businesses around the park,” Schumann said. The revenue is dependable and steadily growing. Visits to state parks have risen 12 percent since 2002, even as funding for the parks has declined.

The state’s park system includes 46 state parks, 14 state trails, four recreational areas, eight state forests and two national scenic trails. In addition to the tourists who visit Wisconsin’s scenic wonders, the state is home to an enthusiastic population of hikers, campers, backpackers, snowmobilers, kayakers, boaters, rock climbers, hunters, anglers, cross-country skiers, birdwatchers, picnickers and others who enjoy outdoor recreation — or just the peace of communing with nature.

Wisconsin’s parks and green spaces are as essential to the state’s identity as beer and cheese. Indeed, the very name of Wisconsin’s land stewardship fund reflects the state’s deeply rooted bipartisan ties to conservation. Former Democratic Gov. Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, and Republican Gov. Warren Knowles were its inspiration.

Wisconsin has produced several important conservationists. In addition to Nelson and Knowles, the list of Wisconsin conservationists includes the legendary John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Nina Leopold Bradley and Hilary “Sparky” Waukau, a member of the Menomonee Nation who helped save the northern part of Wisconsin from becoming a nuclear waste dump. Perhaps those historical figures helped to establish the outdoorsy culture that the Nature Conservancy’s survey found among state residents.

But the Walker budget rejects this tradition.

“When it comes to conservation, this budget is absolutely terrible,” Schumann said.

UW alumni mobilize to fight Walker’s draconian budget cuts

Gov. Scott Walker is fond of comparing his proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System to Act 10, his signature legislation that gutted collective bargaining for public workers and sparked massive protests.

Opposition to the UW cuts doesn’t look to flare that intensely, but system leaders have no plans to go quietly into the budget cut night. Despite their president’s call for calm, campus heads are ratcheting up warnings about how the cuts would cripple the system and starting to mobilize tens of thousands of alumni in an effort to convince Walker and legislators to scale the reduction back.

“I realize this may make you feel helpless,” UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer wrote on that school’s website. “However, the beauty of democracy is that we all have a voice. I would encourage you to use that voice. … We simply cannot allow the UW System, one of the state’s greatest assets and economic drivers, to be weakened in this way.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said in an email to The Associated Press that the governor’s plan is to empower the system leadership and give them flexibility over the use of their resources.

The Republican governor’s two-year budget plan calls for cutting the system by $300 million while keeping a tuition freeze in place for in-state students. In exchange Walker would give the system more freedom from state oversight and laws on building projects, procurement and tuition increases when the freeze expires in 2017.

Walker, who is grappling with a $2 billion deficit while ramping up a 2016 presidential run, has said less oversight would give the system the flexibility to absorb the cut, much like he said Act 10 helped government employers absorb budget cuts in 2011.

“Our proposal gives new cost-savings reforms to the UW through an authority, while protecting the hardworking families and students by freezing tuition for another two years,” Patrick said.

The depth of the cut coupled with the inability to raise tuition to offset it has left chancellors stunned. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimate shows UW-Madison next year would lose $57.7 million, nearly 12 percent of its current annual budget. UW-Whitewater would take the biggest percentage cut at nearly 19 percent.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank railed against the cuts. She warned they’ll lead to layoffs, force tuition increases for out-of-state and international students, push disgruntled faculty to leave and hurt the flagship campus’ reputation.

System President Ray Cross followed that up by imploring chancellors and regents not to view the cuts in a “rhetorical, inflammatory or emotional way.”

But campus leaders aren’t sitting still.

Whitewater’s Telfer made his appeal for a write-in campaign on last week. Blank sent a blast email to UW-Madison’s alumni the day of the regents meeting imploring them to write to Walker and legislators and demand they reduce the cut, saying the reduction “puts at risk the investment that generations of Wisconsinites have made to create a highly ranked university in our state.”

Blank also has scheduled a series of public forums on campus next week to discuss how the cuts would affect the school.

Tom Luljak, a spokesman for UW-Milwaukee, which stands to lose nearly $20 million in the budget’s first year, said that school’s alumni have been calling asking for information about how to contact legislators. He said the school is preparing information for Panther Advocates, a formal group of active alumni who communicate with lawmakers regularly, although that group’s efforts on the cut hasn’t begun yet. Chancellor Mark Mone has promised to reach out to any group that might help lobby for more money.

“I can’t help but be angry,” Mone said during a Jan. 28 speech. “I can’t help but be upset.”

Lynne Williams, a spokeswoman for UW-Superior, which is in line to lose $2.3 million in the first year, said campus officials plan to lobby lawmakers during the Superior community’s annual state Capitol lobbying day on Feb. 25.

Walker tweeted that critics of the UW cuts sound like critics of Act 10, which he said helped the state.

His budget still needs legislative approval. The Legislature’s budget committee will spend months revising it before forwarding it on for votes in the full Assembly and Senate. Republican leaders already have said the UW cuts look too deep and the governor himself has said he would be open to giving the system more money.