Monday, January 30, 2006

More on fees

It was nice to see more legislators join the "Do as I say, not as I do" crowd in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. If too many of them crowd into the same room, we can get them either for violating the Open Meetings Law or for violating the fire code.

I had a long, enjoyable talk with Michele Derus for the story, and understandably not everything I told her got into print.

One point that didn't make it is that local governments are only belatedly learning what the Legislature long ago figured out: you can hold the line on taxes while raising fees to cover increasing costs. Of course, the Legislature also can hold the line on taxes by creating structural deficits, something local governments can't do, but that's another story.

I reached into my file cabinet while I was talking to Derus and picked two Bob Lang memos out of my Fees-State Budget file. Lang is the long-time director of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. If he had a beard, it would be as long as Methuselah's.

Anyway, a Lang memo dated Aug. 10, 1995 revealed that the 1995 state budget increased fees by at least $120.6 million over the two-year budget. There were no dollar estimates for some of the fee increases.

But the state was just getting the hang of how fees can ward off tax increases. In 2003, the redoubtable Lang calculated that the state budget bill would increase fees by $414.1 million.

And Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) criticized Mayor Tom Barrett because fees in Milwaukee were increased $15 million? Methinks there's a hint of politics in the air.

Shouldn't state legislators make sure their own house is spic and span -- and odor free -- before telling local government how to arrange the furniture and which flower arrangement to put in which vase?