Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Federal stimulus funding: the right way forward for Wisconsin

Governor Doyle will deliver his annual State of the State address tonight before a packed Assembly chamber here in Madison. Already this week the Governor and his aides have hinted that his address will be a somber, straightforward discussion of the state’s dire economic and fiscal landscape.

Republicans and Democrats will listen intently to the Governor’s speech and should, in a manner reflective of this serious challenge, respond with bi-partisan vigor to bring the Wisconsin economy back. I doubt anyone will disagree with these sentiments.

However, as our time tested system of government requires, bi partisanship will not preclude a substantive and passionate debate over how best to move forward. Anyone who knows me and has followed my career knows that I believe in and readily engage in the legislative debate on big issues. Speaking of big issues, here’s one to start with.

As expected, Democrats in the United States House of Representatives introduced a new economic stimulus package on January 15th. Their legislation would allocate billions of dollars to each state for, among other purposes, infrastructure projects that will require the creation of new jobs. While the precise amount is still the subject of speculation, Wisconsin stands to receive a substantial portion of these funds. The question remains: how will we use it.

Governor Doyle has recently named a good man, Gary Wolter, to lead a new state Office of Recovery and Reinvestment. The new office will, in Mr. Wolter’s words, lay the groundwork for smart, quick decisions by the Governor, his administration and the Wisconsin Legislature. Pressed on respecting the proper role of the legislature, Mr. Wolter and his new deputy, Alan Fish, agreed repeatedly that the legislature will have a proper role. Rest assured that I intend to hold the administration to that commitment.

The process for determining how to spend these funds can’t be properly managed in the Governor’s conference room. Governor Doyle and his team should identify a series of projects and forward those recommendations to the Wisconsin Legislature for a prompt, fair and open debate. My colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly have a unique and important perspective about how certain projects can affect our sagging economy. Skipping our vote – and ignoring that perspective – would be a huge and costly mistake.

Here are two additional principles we should adhere to.

First, while the federal government is effectively borrowing the money for this stimulus package, Wisconsin must avoid passing along any debt down the road to our kids and grandkids. Taxpayers across this state are trimming their credit card accounts and paying cash whenever they can. State government needs to follow that lead and use the federal funding for projects that can accept our cash payment and get started immediately.

Second, the legislature and Governor Doyle should agree that these funds should be focused on projects that have the greatest established need and the best potential economic impact. What are the long-term implications of these projects? How are we helping to create new jobs? These are the important questions. We should resist any temptation to play politics or grandstand at this crucial moment in Wisconsin’s economy.

Accepting new funding from Congress is rarely free or straightforward. Accordingly, the Governor and the legislature must handle these funds with great care and transparency.