July 14, 2009
Lehman makes his case to Racine Taxpayers Assn.
Like Daniel cast into the lions' den, John Lehman appeared Tuesday before the Racine Taxpayers' Association.
Racine's ranking Democrat on the state budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, Lehman did not have an angel watching over him, as Daniel did, and came away from the encounter somewhat mauled. In all fairness, of course, the group has rarely encountered a tax it likes, and in these wrenching economic times the state budget has a lot of them.
Sen. Lehman, D-Racine, spoke for 15 minutes, trying to put the $62 billion budget into perspective. "It has been cut, cut, cut, cut, cut," he said. "If you summarize it, it's bad, it's difficult, it's a struggle." Later he added, "We're in very bad times. But we kept our priorities, we're keeping the ship running."
No "big" taxes were increased, he said, referring to the sales tax, the income tax (except for those who earn more than $300,000 per year), the payroll tax, the gas tax. Lehman conceded that smokers will pay more, and there's a new tax on phone lines. "And the average home in Wisconsin -- worth $167,000 -- its property tax will go up $93 the first year, and $123 the second."
Things could be much worse. "We're not in as bad shape as California, issuing IOUs," he said. Or Oregon, where the fee for auto license plates just went from $54 to $162 per year. Or New Jersey, where property taxes in one community went up 100%.
The Legislature, in fact, made $1.6 billion in state spending cuts, he said, including imposing 16-day unpaid furloughs on state employees. "No Republican administration has ever done what we've done, this level of cuts," he said, acknowledging that "Democrats are everywhere" in Madison -- the Assembly, the Senate, the Governor's office. Although it is illegal to change a legislator's salary during his term of office, Lehman said he is "voluntarily" turning back 3% of his own paycheck each month.
His audience appeared unmoved. The first question involved state debt, and questioned the widely accepted figure of a 6.2% increase in state spending over the next biennium. The questioner insisted the state budget is really going up $19 billion over the next two years -- closer to 30% -- and said he got the figures from Gov. Doyle's own website, perhaps including federal stimulus funds. "I'd have to examine that," Lehman said.
The next two questions concerned the change in the state's "prevailing wage" statute, which is expected to increase the cost of construction in-state, and the elimination of the QEO, which many credit with keeping a lid on teacher salaries and benefits. Lehman, a former teacher, objected to the questioner's characterization of teacher benefits as "Cadillac," but agreed "they do seem to exceed what many people have." He said "teachers have better than average health care" because benefits were protected by the QEO, "but they are not under the new system. I have said to my teacher friends, 'Recognize that these are tough times and don't get greedy.' "
And then things got really nasty. "You seem to have a fear of cutting services," a man told Lehman, calling him out for "your generally Socialist ideas." That remark was met with both agreement and hisses, although Lehman tried gamely to answer the question it led up to -- how to attract businesses into the state -- with a response about how education and quality of life "are major, major considerations." Later he said, "I'm not a Socialist; I'm a fairly centrist member of the Democratic Party."
Then came a softball from a Lehman loyalist who noted the deficits left by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and said of Lehman, "we're lucky to have you; you're the best thing to come along since Les Aspin." If he had stopped there ... but he didn't, adding that the anti-Lehman/ Mason/ Doyle banners flown over the July 4th parade were "very tacky." As for the people who paid for the display, "Shame on them!"
Someone in the audience of about 35 hollered out in response, "Praise to them!" and someone else insisted, "That's why we're letting you speak."
Lehman, noting he marched in the parade with his wife, daughter and granddaughter, responded that the anonymously-sponsored banners "are not analogous to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with John Hancock's big signature. The cowardly person who put this up..."
That statement was interrupted by Jody Harding, one of this spring's candidates for mayor, who yelled out, along with a few others, "I paid for it!"
Lehman said, "The stuff is destructive to you and your liberty." There's a difference, he said, between "being out there in public and being a patriot."
When the discussion got back to taxes, Lehman received thanks for the "1/2% sales tax you didn't give us." That one would have been for KRM, about which Lehman said, "I don't know whether I'm happy with how that ended up."
Lehman noted that 55% of all the money collected by Madison goes back out to county and local municipalities. Wisconsin ranks 4th in the U.S. in the portion of local government spending that is furnished by the state, he said. "When you call for cuts in Madison, it will be passed on. We cut, cut cut ... and now the news is, 'What do we do with the local budgets?' "
One man told Lehman, "You should be more concerned about the 45% that stays in Madison." Another suggested the Legislature do something about "the old boys' club" that runs the technical colleges (which only receive 10% of their budgets from the state). Someone else complained about all the closed sessions that led up to the budget, which Lehman defended as "strategy sessions."