In a blog post we released just prior to the Governor’s State of the State address, we asked whether his proposals would prioritize investments in children and opportunity for all. To be fair, the State of the State speech is not usually the vehicle for detailed policy proposals, those details will be contained in the budget the Governor introduces in a few weeks. So as we look forward towards that, I am remembering a quote I heard a while back which goes: “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you believe.”
In his speech the Governor said: “It is a moral imperative that every child has access to a great education.” I wholeheartedly agree. So if that is the belief, what is the budget? An analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project shows that Wisconsin public schools spent 5.4% less per student than a decade ago, while the national spending increased 4.2% over the same period. The University of Wisconsin system received a $250 million cut in the last budget. Perhaps that trend will begin to be turned around in the next budget, but whatever additional investments we may see in that budget must be considered in light of the significant cuts in the past. And that standard must be applied in other areas as well.
The main theme of the speech was that the state of the state is strong. The question this raises for me is, “For who?” There is no doubt that there are many in our state who are doing very well, but many are being left behind. Income is increasing at the top, while it is stagnant for the rest of us. At the same time, the well-connected and the wealthy pay a smaller portion of their incomes in taxes than the rest of us. We also have broad and deep racial disparities in our state, an issue that is essentially ignored by most of our state level leadership and was not mentioned in the speech.
We have some big challenges in our state. One of the tests of the budget is whether the solutions proposed are of sufficient scale to make a real impact on those challenges. If we claim to really care about a million dollar problem, and then only invest a hundred dollars, that tells me that we don’t really care that much. Moral imperatives are great, but budgets are moral documents. I believe what we invest in is the best indication of our morals and our values.