Wisconsinize Colorado? Please do

(Denver Post, March 27) A useful new verb was coined the other day when Republicans joined Democrats to propose higher pension contributions by public employees and a union boss called it a “blatant attempt to Wisconsinize the Colorado budget process.” What a great idea, thought many a tired and worried taxpayer. Wisconsinize away, legislators—what took you so long?

Statewide unemployment is record–awful, and metro Denver unemployment worse still. Why shouldn’t these job–secure teachers and state workers kick in a little more toward their comfy (but now shaky) retirement plans? As recession maintains its grip despite cheery official statistics, the dirty secret is out: Government employees at all levels across the land are better compensated than you and me in the private sector.

So, yes, by all means. Colorado should not only Wisconsinize downward its public pay and benefit packages, along with the union bargaining leverage that drives them. It should also New Jersey–ize transportation, Florida–ize health care, Utah–ize the schools, and Texas–ize the tax system. Other states are making hard choices for fiscal survival and economic revival—and doing it on the spending side, not with revenue grabs. We can too.

“Colorado cannot expect to grow its way out of its budget problems,” warned Charlie Brown, veteran of decades on the legislative staff and now head of DU’s fiscal think tank, in a much–noticed report last month. Our state has a revenue problem as well as a spending problem, agrees Henry Sobanet, budget director for Gov. John Hickenlooper. But do we really? It depends on your assumptions.

Former state Rep. Penn Pfiffner starts his fiscal slide show with a chart showing that total state spending from taxes, fees, and federal funds has never decreased in modern times. Never. Pfiffner is now with the Independence Institute, and he directed their Citizens Budget project, which published a “road map for sustainable government in Colorado” several weeks ago.

Working from a projected $1 billion gap between the trend lines for revenue and spending, his citizen budgeteers identified specific, realistic savings in K–12 education, health care, corrections, higher education, transportation, and pensions that would more than balance the budget—and bend the spending curve down in future years, so the structural deficit identified in DU’s study wouldn’t persist.

The resulting 168–page book (of which I peer–reviewed a chapter) plows through grainy detail in department after department until your eyes ache. No rosy generalities or unspecified “waste, fraud, and abuse” cuts for this corps of academicians and experts. No throwing grandma out in the snow, either. Their roadmap could actually get us home, provided we’re grown up enough to follow it.

“To assume,” says a bad pun and good proverb, “can make an ass of U and me.” Pfiffner and company reject the assumed inevitability of Sobanet’s revenue deficiency and Brown’s grimly rising graphs for spending on schools, prisons, and Medicaid out to 2025. They assume instead that we control our own destiny, in the problem of over–government as in every other area of political life—and all history is on their side.

Liberals such as Sen. Rollie Heath are so sure revenue is the problem that they want to raise income taxes and sales taxes. Conservatives such as Jon Caldara, who funded the Pfiffner counter–budget, are so sure it’s not that they’re proposing a tax cut. Reduce income taxes in the face of a doomsday deficit? How Reaganistically visionary. How Wisconsinish.

But then, Texas has no income tax at all, and it’s booming. Utah schools outperform Colorado with much larger classes. Florida Gov. Rick Scott turned down big money from Obama for a health–insurance exchange (which some Republicans here seem to want). New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie nixed that expensive tunnel. Grownups can do this stuff. Now is the time.

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