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.)

June 25, 2008

Prestegard for governor!

The genesis of this piece comes from two places. The first was when I wrote to the administrator of a survey that asked the question of whom the survey-taker would prefer for president. The response I got was: “I’d rather it be you than who we have now!” Very kind.

The second was a comment in opposition to my point of view in “Patrolling the state budget,” in which the writer suggested, “I think we need to see your name on the ballot for Governor so that you can fix all the shortcomings you point out. Or, perhaps you are just satisfied to sit back and take shots at what other people are doing?” (As opposed to every other opinionmonger, apparently.)

There are several really good reasons why I won’t run for governor, or any other office, in my lifetime. First, running for office is contrary to the ethics code of Journal Communications, my employer, so I’d have to choose between this job and running for an office I would be far from certain of attaining. That’s particularly important given that I lack the means of independent wealth to have employment not be an issue. (Today’s campaign finance laws prevent the kind of approach Ronald Reagan used to become governor of California in 1966 and Eugene McCarthy used to run for president in 1968 — using a few large donors to bankroll your campaign.) I’ve already had one political campaign experience at well below the state level; I told people I wanted to finish either first or last, and, well, I got my wish, due probably in part to my refusal to sound like a politician. I didn’t mind losing, and I wouldn’t mind losing another race, although it would be tough to disappoint the (insert single-digit number here) people who would work for my election.

I’m reasonably certain that my political worldview isn’t in the mainstream of the Wisconsin Republican Party. Tommy Thompson wasn’t a fiscal conservative (then again, with a constantly growing economy, one can get away with not being a fiscal conservative), and there seem to be at least as many RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) as Republicans with actual GOP principles in the Legislature, and almost no libertarian-leaning Republicans in this state. (I could run for the nomination of the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party, I suppose.) I’m even more certain that my political worldview isn’t in the mainstream of Wisconsin political thought, which, as I’ve argued before, favors government and income-redistributing levels of taxation. I don’t have a problem telling those who reflect that mainstream that they’re wrong, but telling someone they’re wrong does not usually compel that person to vote for you.

I’m pretty certain I don’t want to inflict on my family — or myself, for that matter — the kind of silly personal scrutiny that accompanies candidates for statewide office. (I can just imagine some snarky Capital Times, Isthmus or Shepherd Express columnist making fun of my weight, my hair, my facial hair, my footwear, my inability to keep my lunch and my clothing separate, my complicated sentence structure, my personality quirks, etc.) Running for office would probably be a great exercise plan — a state senator once told me he lost 28 pounds campaigning door-to-door one summer — but the thought of being driven around the state by someone else, even in a Janesville-built E85-powered Chevrolet Suburban, for an entire spring, summer and fall, not to mention the next four years, is antithetical to my nature. (Driving myself around the state would be much more fun.) And the presence of this blog and my writings of the past 23 years means that I have a record of sorts, and I’m sure opponents and the media (assuming they wouldn’t be the same group) would relish the opportunity to use certain of my past writings — such as, say, “A modest tax proposal” — to demonstrate the rabid-eyed conscienceless Nazi wannabee they’d accuse me of being. (Then again, Thompson’s 1986 GOP rival described him as a “two-bit hack from Elroy,” which worked pretty well for Thompson.)

The purpose of this ego-enhancing mental exercise is to point out that there needs to be a sea change in the Wisconsin Republican Party, and a gubernatorial candidate is the obvious person to lead the change. For too long, the state GOP has seemed to represent the same things Democrats did, except of a slightly smaller scope with slightly lower levels of taxation. The failure of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, enactment of which should be policy plank number one for the fiscal conservative, is all the proof you need, particularly given that all that tax limits do is limit increases in taxation.

Moreover, this state is a fiscal disaster area, thanks to the contributions of both parties. If our elected officials want to stop Wisconsin from becoming, in the words of one state representative, “Alabama with high taxes,” the state needs to get on the road to eliminating, not obscuring with accounting tricks, the state’s structural and accrual budget deficits, and the later the fix occurs, the harder it will be. At the same time, to increase taxes to balance the budget is a nonstarter in this tax hell of ours.

So here’s plank number one: If I am elected governor (and the world doesn’t end immediately after that), I will pledge that, before reelection time, the state budget will be in complete balance — on a cash basis (which is all that state law requires) and accrual basis and structurally. A governor can do that since Wisconsin governors have the most broad veto power of any governor in the U.S.

But lest I be accused of being partisan or a superlegislator, I’d give the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of the Legislature this deal: In order to balance the budget by June 30 of the next gubernatorial election year, I would let those four decide how to do it, with the goal of eliminating all the budget deficits by the June 30 before election day, three fiscal years from inauguration day. The conditions: No tax increases, no general fee increases, no long-term debt increases where they’re clearly not appropriate (bonding for road projects is like buying a house with a mortgage, but state government borrows too much), and any deficit that is not cut will be cut by my veto pen. Since there hasn’t been an overridden gubernatorial veto in recent memory, I’m certain the veto-created budget cuts would stick.

This would require, based on the state’s current financial condition, a budget cut totaling about 16 percent of state general fund spending — probably two-thirds in the first budget cycle after the election, with the remaining third in the budget cycle before re-election. That will require, for instance, reducing federally mandated spending to the bare federally required minimum, reducing the number of state employees, eliminating some things that state government now does, and merging government operations where mergers will lead to savings. As I said before, the longer the state waits, the bigger the cuts will have to be.

Once the budget deficits are eliminated, then the real work can begin to make (here comes plank number two) the state’s economy as recession-proof as possible. (Wouldn’t it be interesting to grade governors based on growth in gross state product?) That includes a combination of personal income tax decreases (I’d prefer a single-rate system), eliminating the corporate income tax as it applies to business activity in Wisconsin, cutting the size and scope of state and local government (which would have to be part of the deficit elimination process anyway — I’d like to be known as someone who left office with a smaller statute book than when I took office — and is the best form of campaign finance reform) enforced by tax and spending limits applied to all levels of government, improving schools through expanding public and private school choice statewide, promoting Wisconsin-made products through promoting free trade, and improving the state’s energy infrastructure.

Other things are important too — creating a state rainy-day fund with actual money in it (the state’s fund is currently at $65 million, a bit less than the almost $1 billion states average), eliminating state agencies’ ability to create laws through regulation (creating law is the job of the Legislature, not unelected bureaucrats), and other enhancements of individual liberty (for instance, legalizing concealed-carry) and property rights. (I’d love to move the Upper Peninsula from Michigan into Wisconsin where it belongs, but that may be impractical.)

This thought exercise, or at least the sentiments in it, may strike readers as radical. But we in Wisconsin have done things the old bigger-government-is-better way for decades. And the result has been lower-than-average personal income and higher-than-average taxes. It's hard not to conclude that state government is broken, based on what you read here and elsewhere. I would say we are long overdue for a new approach — if not by me (and it won't be by me), than by someone else.

(P.S. For those horrified by this vision of what I would espouse if I were running for governor: Relax. I'm too busy to run.)


Anonymous said...

That's the problem...everyone GOOD is too busy to run. Those who run don't, apparently, care much about their appearance and personality quirks like lunch and laundry and the like...

We need GOOD candidates to get in the game and, damn the torpedos!

Anonymous said...

Good points...which leads to my idea: go to a uni-cameral legislature of 66 seats--and then double the salary of those elected. You will draw out better candidates--those who currently cannot 'afford' to run due to the financial ramifications. Presumably you would have a group of smarter, harder working legislators (albeit full-time, but they are full time now!). They would in turn be strong enough to fight back against a Governor with such ridiculous veto power. What do you think?!--Derek