The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 7, 2008

Save money? Never mind

There’s no better way to start this item than to just print the first five paragraphs of this Associated Press story:

The headline-grabbing claim from Gov. Jim Doyle in March 2005 couldn't have been clearer.

At a news conference, Doyle said his administration would save taxpayers up to $200 million over four years through better management of the state bureaucracy under the so-called ACE Initiative.

The state would negotiate new contracts to buy goods and services for less money. It would sell off surplus property. And it would consolidate a number of other functions across state government to find savings.

"Every dollar we save on the office functions of state government is a dollar we can invest in our priorities," Doyle said.

But three years later, a review shows the goals outlined by the governor have not been met. His administration quietly killed the initiative last year after faulty projections, unexpected problems and bureaucratic resistance hampered the effort.

A representative of AFT–Wisconsin, one of the state’s state employee unions, claimed the project wouldn’t work because it relied on private contractors. Actually, I believe any kind of cost-reduction initiative that involves state employees is doomed to fail because there is no incentive for state employees to find savings and consolidation that might result in their losing their jobs, which is in fact the point.

I doubt the initiative looked at, for instance, what state and local government pay their employees in benefits, but the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance did:
State-local government employees in Wisconsin received an average of $12,171 in fringe benefits in 2005, exceeding benefits for private sector workers by more than 50%. Public benefits cost Wisconsin taxpayers $4.62 billion in 2005, or an average of more than $800 per person. These are the key findings of the latest Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX) study, "Public and Private Benefits in Wisconsin." Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the nonprofit WISTAX keeps Wisconsin citizens informed through nonpartisan public-policy research.

In every state, public benefits are greater than those in the private sector. However, Wisconsin’s gap (50.1%) was much larger than the nation’s (34.9%). It was also larger than the gaps for all states bordering Wisconsin: Illinois (34.5%), Iowa (45.8%), Michigan (18.4%), and Minnesota (30.1%). The largest gap was in Oregon, where public benefits were nearly triple those in the private sector. If Wisconsin’s state-local employees received the same level of fringe benefits as the state’s private workers, Wisconsin governments would have spent $1.54 billion less in 2005, WISTAX said.

In addition to costing more, public benefits have also grown faster than private ones. From 2001 to 2005, Wisconsin’s public benefits per worker climbed 41.6%, or an average of 9.1% per year. Private benefits have also grown quickly (up 34.8%, or an average of 7.8% per year), but at a slower rate than public benefits.

You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to see that Doyle’s goal was not to save taxpayers money, but to spend more tax dollars — I mean, “invest in our priorities,” “our” certainly not meaning, say, anyone who reads this magazine.

The note in the story about selling off surplus property is worthy of comment. The state has managed to sell only one-fourth of the projected $36 million in surplus property it was going to sell off. Meanwhile, the state budget includes annual spending, between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2020, totaling $860 million in land purchases through the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Fund. I’m not sure what $860 million in land purchases gets you, but that will be $860 million in land on which no property taxes will be paid, and will be off limits to anyone who might use land for something other than “nature-based outdoor recreation.” In an era in which the state has an annual deficit based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles of $2.15 billion, and a structural deficit of between $1.4 billion and $1.6 billion, how responsible is this?

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