Monday, January 31, 2011

Dancing around the problem

By Bill Kraus

When he was majority leader of the state Senate, Bill Bablitch referred to the long slow prelims to the state budget as “the dance,” as in, “The dance has begun.”

Before getting to the nitty gritty, some stuff has to be cleared away.

Campaign promises are the first to go. The new administration has done a lot of that.

The train is either gone or postponed. The GOP paranoia about voter fraud is being addressed. The “open for business” slogan has gone beyond talk to small, symbolic, more-or-less important actions. Cathy Stepp has taken over DNR and will test the reality of what may be an anti-business illusion there. The proponents of Health Service Accounts got the nod they wanted.

Small tax incentives for businesses to grow and add employees are in place or moving that way. A stalled business project has been put into overdrive. The subjective subject of frivolous lawsuits against business is on the table and rattling the cages of the plaintiffs’ bar. The long-range plan is to grow our way out of the structural deficit. The dance is in the short range.

It will surprise no one to learn that no bones are being thrown to reformers from other places. There will be no move toward disinterested redistricting or campaign finance regulation. Even an old GOP favorite, disclosure of campaign participants and money, hasn’t been given the time of day.

Another GOP favorite, “higher taxes on consumption, lower taxes on income,” is still in the closet. Does the “read my lips” curse extend beyond raising taxes to rearranging them? If so, watch the hated property taxes take yet another hit.

The next phase of the dance is the hard part. We move quickly past the two step, skip the waltz, and go right to the tango.

In important ways the states’ job of balancing budgets is a lot harder than the feds.

The states’ big ticket items are more unrelenting.

Then secretary of Health and Social Services Don Percy told Governor Lee Dreyfus in 1980 that if something wasn’t done to contain and control Medicaid it would eat up the entire state budget by 2020. Nothing has been done. Now 2020 is only nine years away.

Putting people who threaten us into prisons has brought the cost of incarceration to almost the top of the state budget. Another very sticky wicket.

There is some freedom of movement in dealing with the state’s main constitutional obligation--education--but not much.

Of course, the state can continue to dump mandates without money onto local governments and ignore the deal that was made more than 100 years ago when the state got the tax it wanted by promising offsetting aids to local governments.

It may even be possible that passing taxes onto others isn’t a violation of the “read-my-lips” commandment. But forever? Not likely.

The music is playing. The players are on the dance floor. The voters are waiting to see how lively they step and in which direction.

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