10 truths for conservatives at budget time (and why Walker is right to oppose gas tax hike)

Governor Walker has consistently opposed any increase in Wisconsin’s gas tax unless balanced by tax cuts elsewhere in the budget.  Walker believes funding for roads is a priority but the money should come from existing revenue.  He is right on both counts. These 10 truths about government and budgeting help explain why.  Conservatives should remember these as we enter budget season in Wisconsin.

#1: Budgeting requires tough choices among competing priorities

A healthy budget process involves setting clear priorities and then allocating resources accordingly.  Walker has a clear priority that taxes will not be increased during his time as Governor.  Our state is best served by a healthy competition among the various agencies seeking their share of limited state funds.

#2: Spending more on top priorities should mean spending less elsewhere

Unless sufficient new revenues are available, increased spending in one area of the budget should require cutting back in other areas.  Here is a secret: this rarely happens.  The reason has to do with political opposition to cutting programs.  The added spending on top priorities comes instead from the gradually increasing state revenue stream, estimated to go up about 4% this year.

#3: Getting the same results with fewer dollars leaves more for other priorities

The big lesson of Act 10 was that school districts, as well as state and local governments could get the same results while spending less.  The pursuit of cost efficiencies and innovation across government can help control our tax burden or leave more money available to be spent on other programs.  Major reform within government rarely happens outside of a competitive budget process.

#4: Every department wants a consistent, dedicated funding source free of competition from other priorities

The Department of Public Instruction wants a dedicated 1% sales tax for school funding.  A dedicated fund would remove competition for that money.  Other agencies wish they had “their own money” too.  The majority of the Department of Transportation’s funding comes from dedicated vehicle registration fees and the gas tax.  DOT competes with other agencies for general fund revenue, but only for the portion they want to spend in excess of the dedicated funds.

#5: Departments with dedicated funding will spend it all and come back asking for more

In government nothing disappears faster than surplus funds.  Governments or departments with a dedicated funding stream will routinely spend it all.  It won’t be long before they request more funding through an increase in the dedicated taxes or fees.

#6: Only elected officials can restrain the insatiable appetites of bureaucrats for more spending. Wish lists for spending are not budget deficits

Benjamin Franklin worried that “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.”  Well, Ben, the secret is out.  Government agencies and the people have both found “they can vote themselves money”.  As Ben feared, both have an insatiable appetite for more spending.  At any point in time every government agency or department has a “wish list” of additional spending.  It is a mistake to label as a budget deficit the difference between current funding and the wishful dreams of those spending tax dollars.

#7: Those who benefit from more spending hire lobbyists, while taxpayers rely solely on the courage of elected officials

Benjamin Franklin may not have foreseen the influence wielded by lobbyists in the service of those who benefit from government spending.  The taxpayers depend only on the often wavering courage of elected officials who stand in their defense.  Governor Walker is a man of conviction who has shown he will be unflinching in defense of taxpayers.

#8: Spending more using temporary revenue lays a trap for future leaders

Often departments will offer a temporary funding source such as a grant, federal money, unexpected surplus, or legal settlement as a means to pay for new spending.  Unfortunately this is a trap.  The temporary money will soon be gone but the longterm spending commitment is very difficult to rollback.  Lawmakers are suckers for this trap.

#9: Spending more with borrowed money cowardly puts off tough choices

In my first term in the Assembly, a Senate veteran with decades of experience and a fellow Republican, told me that “no politician gets any credit for reducing debt or cutting spending.  The only political payoff”, he said, “comes from cutting taxes or increasing spending.”  He preferred to do both while increasing debt.  I was taken aback at his candor in supporting what I considered a cowardly approach.  The courage to make tough choices now must be fostered and encouraged in our elected officials.

#10: Voters may approve a tax increase when a strong case is made, but taxes should never be raised without a referendum

Since 1993 Wisconsin taxpayers have been protected by “levy limits” and “revenue limits” that require the approval of local voters for tax increases.  This law has proven to be successful and popular.  Through periods of Democrat control of state government, or divided control, or now under all Republican control, this law has endured.  It is detested by local administrators and elected officials who would prefer to quietly raise taxes without making the case or getting voter approval.

In the years since Act 10 the approval rate for local referendum elections has soared to 3 out of 4.  Lawmakers in Madison should take heed and take their own medicine.  No increase in the gas tax would pass a statewide referendum vote.  Proponents of a gas tax increase who think it would should make the case to the voters and put the question to a referendum.  Until then requests for more transportation funding should compete with other priorities like education and health care.

Governor Walker is not just being stubborn in his objection to a tax increase.  He knows that the DOT will not be as motivated to find efficiencies and innovation without the pressures of the budget process.  He knows that budgeting must be about making hard choices.  Scott Walker deeply believes these things.  More importantly, Scott Walker has the courage to stand up for taxpayers. That’s why I still stand with Walker.