Priorities should include tax reform, corrections, professional licensure and tolling

By MIKE NICHOLS and MICHAEL JAHR of the Badger Institute

This is Wisconsin, so most of us probably already have disregarded our ardent New Year’s resolutions to lay off the brandy and beer-infused brats.

Fortunately, there’s one group among us that still has a shot at redemption.

It’s our hope that state policy-makers will resolve to make us all a little healthier with the following actions:

Balance our intake for a healthier body politic

Despite recent improvements, the Badger State continues to suffer from high-income taxes and a very poor tax mix. The Wisconsin tax code, in fact, “is one of the worst-structured state tax systems in the country,” according to Scott Drenkard, director of state projects at the Tax Foundation.

State policy-makers deserve credit for recent reforms that allow billions of dollars to remain in the private economy. But other states such as North Carolina have enacted comprehensive tax reforms over the past few years, leaving Wisconsin at a disadvantage. Our individual and corporate income taxes are still among the highest in the Midwest. Passage of the federal tax reform bill adds another layer of urgency.

Our tax policy is making us ill. It’s time for a different diet.

Live within our means

Our prison population has exceeded the system’s capacity, prompting talk of a new $300 million prison that we can’t afford.

Instead of indulging a habit that is costly to taxpayers, grows government, diminishes the workforce and contributes to family and community disintegration, policy-makers should emulate successful, common-sense reforms that conservative states around the country have used to reduce recidivism, prison populations, spending and crime.

Kick the federal grant habit

It’s time to lose the unhealthy, counterproductive mindset that federal grants are “free money.” In reality, the side effects include fiscal bloat, impaired judgment and recurring headaches.

In our 2017 survey of state school superintendents, school board members and business managers, sizable majorities said federal regulations “harmfully distort” decision-making at the local level, stifle innovation, decrease the amount of time teachers spend with students and fail to improve education. Sixty-five percent of respondents said federal involvement in local schools should be reduced or eliminated altogether.

Free? One school district spent $60,000 to build an elevator they didn’t need and sits largely unused because cutting costs from the previous year would have resulted in a loss of federal funds.

Treat people fairly

Professional licenses, which were once limited to those serving in health-related jobs, are now required for barbers, manicurists, landscape architects, massage therapists, auctioneers and scores of other professions.

These government permission slips to work fence out people from the labor force, especially those striving to get a foothold on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Licensing regulations are frequently arbitrary, even nonsensical. For instance, emergency medical technicians in Wisconsin are required to have 180 hours of training while a hair stylist needs 1,550 hours.

The end result is higher consumer costs, less innovation and fewer employment opportunities for entrepreneurs, low-skill workers, returning veterans and military spouses, ex-offenders and others.

Set long-term goals

The divisive, dysfunctional transportation funding battle that dominated the budget debate last year need not be a biennial event. With a little foresight and planning, policy-makers can fund state road improvements without raising gas taxes or increasing debt.

The problem is real. Wisconsin’s highways are seriously underfunded, revenue from gas taxes will decline as vehicles become more efficient and borrowing at the level needed to repair and update the system is unsustainable.

Interstate tolling offers a viable alternative. “High-quality infrastructure is a key factor in business location decisions and economic competitiveness,” wrote Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, in a Badger Institute op-ed last year. “Wisconsin needs to solve its highway funding shortfall, and toll-financed Interstate modernization is a powerful tool for doing so.”

Therefore, be it resolved …

Wisconsin residents labor hard to earn a paycheck, raise a family, start a business and buy a home. Policy-makers should resolve to abstain from any policies that make it harder for Wisconsinites to succeed and prosper.

That’s one resolution worth keeping.

Mike Nichols is president and Michael Jahr is vice president of the Badger Institute.

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