Anyone who has ever paid Senator Mike Ellis a visit in his Capitol office knows the chalkboard. And has heard the lecture.
Scribbled on the chalkboard is a Da Vinci Code of numbers and acronyms that tell of the state's financial condition. Ask and you shall receive the sermon about fund balances and GPR and SEG and structural deficits.
Ellis is a dying breed, a true fiscal conservative. He's also a former math teacher. And he knows the state budget. He knows it's built on a foundation of flim-flam. He'll say as much. More is spent than is paid for. The bottom line is made to look balanced by accounting trickery and more than a little borrowed from the future.
During a recent visit, Ellis went off on the fiscal dishonesty of both sides. The Neenah Republican had choice words for his side's habit of claiming to be champions of fiscal restraint and friends of the taxpayer. He pointed to two numbers on his chalkboard. The first was the amount of spending authorized under the budget signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle. The second was the amount of spending in the budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and deposited on Doyle's desk. The second number was considerably higher.
And these people call themselves fiscal conservatives, Ellis ranted. And worse yet, he marvels, their supporters actually believe the hocum they peddle.
Then he aims his ire in Doyle's direction. The governor claims he's cleaned up the state's fiscal mess and balanced the budget . . . without raising taxes. Ellis has two problems with that song and dance. First, he reminds anyone who will listen that the budget is not really balanced. Smoke and mirrors and credit cards make it appear balanced, but it is structurally out of whack. Hundreds of millions more are spent than are paid for. The bill will eventually come due. Second, under the headline that taxes have not been raised is paragraphs of fine print. Taxes haven't been raised if you only count general purpose revenue tax rates and ignore all the increases in user fees and college tuition. More hocum, as Ellis sees it.
What rankles Ellis the most, however, is how the two parties have melted into one on matters budgetary. In the past, he insists, if the state faced a budget crunch, Democrats stood up and said taxes needed to be raised to pay for needed programs. Republicans said all those programs weren't so necessary and insisted spending could be cut. Sometimes, Wisconsin voters felt important investments needed to be made and sided with the Democrats. Other times, taxpayers felt state officials were playing a little too fast and loose with their money and went for the Republicans.
Now, Ellis says, you can't tell the difference between the two parties. The Republicans' dirty little secret is that they love to spend, he says, especially to build roads and prisons. But they're allergic to raising taxes. Democrats like Doyle likewise keep feeding their pet programs but refuse to raise taxes to honestly pay the bills.
All this must leave voters horribly disoriented, Ellis concludes. Citizens don't know who to believe on the budget, because both sides are for spending without taxing.
That chalkboard in the senator's office don't lie. But it also reveals only the tip of the iceberg that menaces the ship of state. The disorientation voters are feeling is very real, but it goes way beyond the issues of taxing and spending.