Blowing the state’s revenue cap means Madison schools never have to say sorry

(Editor's note: The third paragraph has been updated since this blog was originally published.)

As the comedian Mike Myers would say, cheeky little monkeys aren’t they!

That’s the Madison school board. Really, the nerve! The munificent seven are asking for the authority to blow the doors off of fiscal restraint — over wise stewardship of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money — forever! In perpetuity! For all time! To infinity and beyond!

The Metro Madison School District’s referendum question this Tuesday, Nov. 8 is almost unprecedented increasingly rare. Of the hundreds of school district referenda across the state over the last several decades, how many others 30 to 40 referenda sought each annually throughout the state, only 3 to 7 ask for a permanent pass.  Even in Madison, most past spending referenda sought a specific dollar figure for a specific time period for a specific purpose. Madison voters in 2008 did approve exceeding the revenue caps by $13 million annually on a permanent basis. But Madison voters rejected similar proposals in 1995 and 2005.

“Very few districts go to permanent revenue limit changes — precisely because those questions have a tougher time passing. Voters don’t want to write a blank check,” Todd Berry told me. He is president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

But no, this is Madison. The referendum question — cutting to the chase — asks:

Shall the Madison Metropolitan School District … be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified [phased in over four years until] the 2019–2020 school year and thereafter (for a total of $26,000,000)?

“And thereafter.” The gift that keeps on taking.

Madison School District spokesman Rachel Strauch told me, “State revenue caps … have been incredibly restrictive in recent budgets. Based on what has been in recent state budgets (no increase in the last two years, and small increases before that) and what we can expect going forward, we project more than $12 million in cuts next year.”

Some Bring It! perspective: $12 million in cuts out of a $376,511,150        operating budget. That’s 3.2%.

No doubt that Madison schools DO need extra money. That’s why the referendum tool is available. But this one should have been for a fixed period.

The point is that the state’s revenue limits are not static. Nor is state aid. They are dependent on many factors, including the overall economy, the State of Wisconsin’s fiscal health, and the political makeup of the legislature and governor.

Fact is, Wisconsin generally increases state aids year by year, except for 2011–12 when incoming Gov. Scott Walker was confronted with a $3.6 billion budget deficit. (See the accompanying graph.)

One can fault the district for being slow to adopt the Act 10 savings. (And I do!) Recalcitrant, actually. Because the school board was in thrall to the teachers union, the district resisted requiring teachers to share in the cost of their health insurance. The district also resisted bidding out that health insurance to more competitive providers.



Even the Madison district’s state equalization aids (a portion of total state aids) are dynamic (as shown in the accompanying graph.)

What’s more, the state’s fiscal health is rapidly improving. Unemployment is the lowest in 15 years. State revenue collections for fiscal 2016 were up 3.8%. State property values are up 3%. Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years. Labor force participation is 5.5% better than the national average. Improvement in private sector wages is sixth highest in the nation.

Will the governors and legislature increase revenue limits and direct state contributions? Likely so, based on past practice.

Should Tuesday’s referendum pass (as Ol’ Sparky the Mainframe predicts), the stakes are even higher that voters elect fiscally prudent school board members. Because we’re about to write them a blank check.

No slow-speed Segway chase on Madison’s Beltline?

Justice at last for that general Madison pest Jeremy Ryan, aka Segway Boy. (Yes, he’s still alive!)

For months during the Unionista’s intifada after Act 10, this man-boy haunted the state capitol, taunting elected officials, disrupting committee meetings, and insulting the memory of beloved journalist Dick Wheeler. Most recently, a F-bomb the Police sign disgraced his west-side residence. Until a police vehicle ran over it in the course of making drug trafficking arrests.

Wisconsin Watchdog has the story.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.