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Editorial: Budget needs urgency

Wisconsin has always been a progressive state, and citizens take a certain amount of pride in that label. Where the state has fallen down, however, is the process of attempting to put together a state budget.

As of this week, the state has still not passed a state budget and, amid the threats and potential complications, no one in Madison seems to have any real sense of urgency.

How can it be that Wisconsin is the only state in the union (with a July 1 deadline) that has not passed a new budget? How can it be that nearly every other state in the union feels some urgency to get a budget put together?

The answer, of course, is that in Wisconsin nothing drastic happens. In Wisconsin, lawmakers have little incentive to get a budget done on time because constituents don't immediately feel the effects of a failed budget process, said Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political science professor.

Essentially, if a new, two-year budget isn't passed by July 1, when the new fiscal year starts, government spending continues at the same level as the previous year. State workers keep their jobs and state services remain funded.

Thus, no sense of urgency.

How does that differ from other states?

Twenty-three states require a government shutdown. In those states, we find an entirely different atmosphere as the deadlines approach. Lawmakers in Michigan were working Saturdays to avoid a government shutdown that would put thousands of state workers out of jobs and end most state services if an agreement wasn't reached by Oct. 1.

Some may recall when Minnesota had budget issues in 2005, thousands of state workers were laid off, highway rest stops were closed, driver's license renewals were stopped, and more--when the public begins to feel the impact, legislators somehow are able to come together. The Minnesota budget passed in just eight days after government services were interrupted.

As Wisconsin's in the fourth month of a budget deadlock, we still see no incentive to settle. Oh, there are incentives, but none that will immediately impact citizens. Political experts claim that one key motivator for lawmakers to pass a budget is when constituents face the effects of not passing one.

Some Republicans have said they're comfortable not passing a new budget at all--next time it could be Democrats saying the same thing. The politics of budgets is not really important. It's the impact of having the public demand that action be taken--that only occurs when citizens or public employees are directly impacted.

A key motivator seems to be that lawmakers don't want to force a government shutdown. How do politicians explain that to the folks in the hometown café?