Friday, March 22, 2013

Impeding Job Growth and Hurting the Unemployed

The following comes from the weekly e-newsletter from Senator Chris Larson:

There are several provisions in the budget that will not only impede job growth in Wisconsin, but will also have a negative impact on businesses, current Wisconsin employees, and neighbors searching for work. Some of these provisions are detailed below.
  • Eliminate Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin: This popular program, run by the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), helps to increase local sales of agricultural food products and create additional markets for these products. An initial investment of $200,000 into this grant program resulted in $2.7 million in new local food sales and $600,000 in new investments in Wisconsin. Additionally, over 1,200 Wisconsin producers have benefited from the grants provided through this program and dozens of other jobs have been created and retained across the state. Eliminating this program will cost Wisconsin jobs for our family, friends, and neighbors.
  • Requiring Public Transit to Compete for Funds: The budget once again requires public transit, a program vital to job creation and retention in our community, to compete with other programs for funding by pulling these dollars out of the General Purpose Revenue rather than the transportation fund. According to the Milwaukee County Transit Systems, on average 140,000 rides are provided daily. Of these, 39% are commuters traveling to and from work, another 5% are heading to job interviews, and 11% are students making their way to classes to learn valuable skills for their future careers.
  • Ignoring Problems at WEDC: The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a hastily-created public-private agency, has recently come under fire as audits, reports, and news articles have confirmed that insufficient accountability and transparency measures led to fraud, waste, and abuse within the agency. Issues with WEDC include circumventing Wisconsin’s fair and competitive bidding process and ignoring federal and state laws when giving out grants. The final straw was losing track of over $50 million in loans, including about $12 million overdue. Despite the fact that this agency has been unable to track their allocated taxpayer dollars, Governor Walker decided to expand their budget by giving them $75 million in additional economic development tax credits without any increased accountability and transparency measures.
Siphoning Funds from Neighborhood Schools
As you may know, the 2011-2013 Biennial Budget passed by Republicans and signed by Governor Walker gutted $1.6 billion overall in funding for our local public schools while also funneling money into private voucher schools. With the introduction of Governor Walker's second budget, it appears the trend to devalue our children's need for a quality education is continuing. Not only does the newly introduced budget provide a 0% increase in revenue limit growth, but it also continues to divert money to an unaccountable, unproven voucher experiment and creates a voucher 2.0 program by altering the existing format of our charter schools.

Under the governor's budget, private voucher schools will not only be allowed to expand across the state, but they will also see a $73 million increase in funding and spending authority. This means up to a $1,400 per-pupil funding increase for the 25,000 students in voucher schools. In this very same budget, 870,000 Wisconsin children were ignored when a $0 revenue growth limit was instituted in their public neighborhood schools.

The issue of poor accountability and lack of transparency measures in voucher schools has been discussed since I was nine years old. Despite Governor Walker's repeated promises to finally bring accountability and transparency to all schools receiving taxpayer dollars--we have yet to hear about any changes. 

In addition to widespread concerns over the lack of accountability and transparency in Wisconsin's voucher schools, this program also comes at a substantial cost to taxpayers. In 2010, state law compelled Milwaukee Public Schools to levy over $50 million in taxes to subsidize the private schools making up the voucher program, which amounts to 17% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy. This financial burden increased the financial responsibility of taxpayers in 2012 to 22.6% of the total Milwaukee Public Schools tax levy. In truth, Milwaukee taxpayers are now being billed for both the largest school district in the state, Milwaukee Public Schools, AND the fourth largest, which is what the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has grown to be with 22,400 students in the last school year. 

Unfortunately, by increasing the funding for Wisconsin's voucher schools, we are doubling down on a failed system. For those looking to get the most precise snapshot of just how voucher school students are performing compared to their public school counterparts, they should look at data recently collected by the Department of Public Instruction. This data analyzes how all voucher and public school students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grade performed in reading, math, and science during the 2010-2011 school year. According to the data, Milwaukee Public School students outperformed voucher students in eight out of nine categories.

Governor Walker's budget also seeks to further privatize education not only through voucher expansion, but also through charter school changes, such as creating a Charter School Oversight Board (CSOB). This Board would be attached to Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction (DPI), but would ultimately act independently.

Not only will the Board creating these charter schools be controlled by a one-party majority, but it will also face little public scrutiny, can opt to ignore the local school board, and will have sole discretion over the charter school's budget, curriculum, and personnel policies and decisions (such as licensure requirements). Under this proposal, school boards could convert all of the public schools within the district to charter schools. Further, should the area school board opt to convert all schools into charter schools, all students in the district could be forced to attend them. Likewise, parents and teachers in the district would have no say about the state-imposed decision.

While it may seem that school districts statewide will have the choice to go charter or not, this local control option was also eliminated. According to the budget text, approval for new, independent charter schools will be needed from home districts, unless the district meets the criteria of having two schools within the district with bad report card grades. In that case, the creation of CSOB will automatically be triggered, despite any voiced objections from the school board. 
Turning Down Federal Health Care Dollars
Another concerning provision discussed in the Joint Finance Committee briefings was the rejection of federal dollars to ensure more Wisconsinites have health care coverage. The Affordable Care Act offers states the option of extending coverage of our health safety net programs. The federal government picks up 100% of the cost for the first three years and no less than 90% every year thereafter. Governor Walker's decision to reject these funds seemingly defies logic. Even Republican Senator Luther Olsen objected to the Governor's decision while hearing the briefing from the Department of Health Services saying that it seems the state is "leaving money on the table." He suggested taking the smart, financial opportunity being offered now and instead make changes down the road if such changes are required. The governor's misguided choice will not only cost taxpayers more to cover fewer people, but it also turns away an estimated 10,500 new jobs. Additionally, as reported  this week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this decision could even cost Wisconsin businesses an additional $36 million compared to if Wisconsin had accepted these live-saving funds.

These are just some of the issues that were discussed in the agency budget briefings before the Joint Finance Committee this week. Such briefings will continue next week with the agencies that have yet to have their voices heard. I will be sure to keep you apprised of the important issues discussed next week, as well.

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