Thursday, July 16, 2009

Passing a budget on time does not make a better budget

Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Jul 16, 2009; Section:Opinion; Page Number:8A

Democrats’ math fuzzy on school aid
Districts can do better at cutting, too

State Democrats are congratulating themselves on two points. They made the trains run on time; they passed the state budget just before the deadline.

They also claim that 99 percent of us will not see a tax increase.

If they had taken just a little more time with the budget they would have recognized they did not even come close to their 99 percent threshold. Even their own budget document lists so many tax and fee increases you would have to be a contortionist to get around them.

But their budget also plays a cruel game of peek-a-boo with taxpayers. The Democrats hide tax increases by pushing them to the local level. Taxpayers in the Waukesha School District are discovering the first of these hidden taxes.

The Waukesha School District is getting hit with a $6 million reduction in state aid. Never fear, we’re told. This does not mean an actual cut in school spending. It means the district will raise local property taxes to make up for the shortfall, a 10.51 percent increase in the tax levy.

This is where the math gets tricky. To figure out how much your taxes are going up, you need to account for the rate increase and the increase in the value of your home.

Freeman columnist Pete Kennedy reported back in April the average increase in value for a residential property was 2.4 percent. A home previously valued at $175,000 taxed at $8.09 per $1,000 would have paid $1,415.75. The same home with the increase in value and the increased tax rate of $8.94 per $1,000 will now see a tax bill of $1,602.05, a 13.2 percent property tax increase. A home previously valued at $200,000 will see an increase in taxes from $1,618 to $1,830.92.

Remember, that is just the school property tax increase.

School board member William Baumgart wished “the media” would report that the expected tax increase is the result of the Legislature’s budget and not action taken by the board. That is not quite true.

The school board could have done a better job of cutting expenses in the past, reducing the total amount needed to run the school district. It could still find economies in the operation, reducing the need for raised property taxes.

Already the New Berlin School District is taking action to reduce the amount of increased burden on their taxpayers. Waukesha should follow suit.

But Democrats in Madison shoulder most of the blame for this fiasco. In their haste to pass a budget “on time” they used old data for their education numbers. Worse, whatever tinkering they did to the state’s equalization formula to accommodate an “across the board” cut in state aid seems to have resulted in unequal results. For example, the Madison and Hartland school districts both saw an increase in state aid.

No wonder the school district and Superintendent Todd Gray have sent a letter to the Department of Public Instruction suggesting the cut in aid may not meet the state’s constitutional requirements. State Rep. Bill Kramer’s office is also looking into whether the aid cuts meets constitutional standards.

Perhaps if the Madison Democrats had taken a little more time to do the state budget properly, and had actually created the budget in the public eye rather than behind closed doors, there would not be so many questions about how the cuts in aid were distributed among the state’s school districts.

Gov. Jim Doyle wants to completely open up the whole school funding formula this fall. Some Democratic legislators who have school districts disproportionately affected by the aid cuts may be sympathetic to Doyle’s effort.

But before we trust the Democrats to rewrite state law regarding the school funding formula, we should have a complete understanding of how they so badly screwed up the current situation. Their competency to handle such a complex question is at issue.

Waukesha residents should be wary, too, for the Democrats do not have our best interests at heart. This time the cuts may be the result of error. In order to give more to districts like Milwaukee and Madison, Democrats are likely to give Waukesha even less in aid. On purpose, next time.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)