Essay: Assessing Gov. Walker's Proposed Budget

Feb 3, 2015

Credit Dave Reid / Flickr

Before Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank was a journalist, he earned an economics degree. As such, he has taken a hard look at Governor Walker's proposal to make cuts to the UW system.

Education is what makes a person, a people, a state, a nation and a world rich. That is certainly true in monetary terms. According to a study from the US Department of Education, in 2012, the median income for a person 24 to 35 with a college degree was about $17,000 a year more than for a person with only a high school diploma. But education enriches lives in other ways, helping to develop critical thinking skills and appreciation for ideas, be they in the sciences, arts or humanities. The result is a more interesting and happy world and often, a more fulfilled life for an individual.

The founders of our state knew this. They set up a system of free public schools across Wisconsin and established what would become a world-class university in the capital.  The results were spectacular, helping to build Wisconsin into an economic powerhouse of well-educated citizens. Now, all of that is under attack. The budget proposal of Gov. Scott Walker includes a cut of almost 13% in support for the University of Wisconsin system, as well as continuing a tuition freeze on its campuses.

Walker is responding to the poor revenue position of the state, the consequence of his strong commitment to cutting taxes.

Yet his budget will find money to underwrite bonds for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, relying on tax revenue generated by events there to repay them. A world-class arena -- and hopefully a world-class basketball team – is a wonderful thing, but, if a choice must be made, less important than a world-class university. A 13% disinvestment in education will cripple Madison and the other UW campuses that, in the crassest terms, serve as local economic engines and in more lofty ways enrich us all. It is exactly the wrong thing to do for a state that is truly concerned about long-term prosperity.

If investing in an arena is a good idea because it will generate enough taxes to more than pay for doing so, then investing in education is an even better idea. A highly educated population is richer than a less-educated one. Increasing the cost of a college education while lessening its quality, both the inevitable consequences of such a drastic cut in state support for its public university, will result in fewer college graduates in Wisconsin, impoverishing us all. A better solution would be to increase support for the UW to make a four-year public college education free for any qualified student.

Raise taxes to do that, and the state’s economy, and tax collections, would boom in the long-run, making paying for an arena even easier.

Avi Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than 35 years. He’s an occasional panelist on the Interchange program on Milwaukee Public TV, and he’s co-author of the forthcoming book, The Man Who Painted the Universe, coming out in June. He lives in in Whitefish Bay.