The State Government Bailout

merican banks and U.S. automakers came to Washington in the midst of this economic crisis with their hands out looking for help. Congress handed over billions.

Now, with nearly every state from California to Wisconsin in a budget bind, the nation’s governors are looking for an expansive economic stimulus package from the Obama administration to help fill the gap. Let’s call it what it is—another bailout.

Wisconsin is facing a $5.4-billion budget shortfall, and while the federal government can try to spend its way out of a recession, the state can’t. It must have a balanced budget every two years. This is the biggest gap in state history.

Gov. Jim Doyle is banking on billions from Washington to help fill that hole. There will be other tough decisions—like targeted tax increases and likely state layoffs—but Doyle and the Democrats who control the Legislature would much rather spend Washington’s dollars than truly fix an ugly budget.

Doyle sees the federal stimulus package, if it has enough flexibility, as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The governor provided the Obama team with $3.7 billion worth of construction projects in this state, which could start in a matter of months. Everything from commuter rail projects to upgrades to our electrical system. That coupled with education and health care spending and tax cuts are designed to get people back to work while helping fill a budget gap.

No one wants to see higher taxes or hard-working state employees finding themselves out of a job. But the huge hole now facing state lawmakers is the result of years of budget gimmicks—not simply bad luck because of a down economy. It’s a result of the political games played in Madison at the expense of the residents of this state. It’s not unique to Wisconsin but we’re seeing now just how irresponsible it is.

If government had been living within its means, the problems facing Wisconsin would not be so dire. As it stands, the federal programs might be good for the state but lawmakers shouldn’t use it as another way around fixing the problem.

Use this crisis to fundamentally change how we spend state tax dollars. Budget smarter so in the next recession we aren’t left with a hand out hoping for a bailout.

Colin Benedict is WISC-TV’s news director. He’s lived in the Madison area since 1995. E-mail him at