The Wisconsin Legislature is now nearly two months late with its budget. With Senate Democrats and Assembly Republicans still $10 billion apart in spending and taxes, some lawmakers are speculating it could be November before the wrangling is done. That prospect irks Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.
"It puts us in an untenable position," she complains. "There's no reason at all for the Legislature not to get their jobs done."
Falk must submit her budget to the County Board no later than Oct. 1. But without a finalized state budget, she'll have to guess at funding for certain programs. Assembly Republicans, for example, have proposed cutting $1 million in youth aides for the county's juvenile justice system - money that would have to be made up by county taxpayers. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have allocated a $700,000 boost for the county's court-system clerical costs.
"There are literally a hundred of these kinds of budget lines," says Falk. "I either have to set budgets that are higher than necessary, or I will be underbudgeting - which means services will be underfunded next year."
Madison is in a similar position, says mayoral aide George Twigg. The city doesn't yet know how much it will get in shared revenue or transit aids. And one potentially huge budget ax is hanging over the city: Assembly Republicans want to cut $5 million in payments for municipal services to Madison. The state usually pays a set amount to communities that have state office buildings or a prison; last year, Madison received $8.7 million.
"No other community got a cut," says Twigg. "They singled out Madison among all the other communities in the state. Some might call it punitive."
But state Rep. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater) says he doesn't think the state's citizens are frustrated by the lack of a budget. "The public gets it," he says. "They know they're overtaxed. They want us to get our house in order."
Without a budget, Falk says she'll have to "tax too little or too much, and both are wrong."
And she doesn't believe Republicans and Democrats can't reach a compromise over state spending. She notes that the Dane County Board is almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives, just like the Legislature, "and yet we get a budget done."
"You work together," she says. "You gotta work with people of different political stripes. That's the job."
ATC wins again
The state will not order an audit of American Transmission Co. Last month, Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Middleton) asked the state's Legislative Audit Bureau to investigate ATC, a for-profit entity that gets a federally guaranteed 12% rate of return on all of its power-line projects. The company, which wants to build a 345-kilovolt transmission line in Dane County, has been accused of proposing unnecessary power lines to boost its profits.
But the co-chairs of the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee, state Sen. Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa) and Rep. Suzanne Jeskewitz (R-Menomonee Falls), say the state does not have the authority to audit a private company.
State auditor Jan Mueller agrees the state could audit ATC "only with their cooperation. Then we could have access to their records." This is what happened in 2004, when the state investigated the financially strapped Milwaukee Brewers. (The state concluded that if the Brewers played better baseball, the team would generate more revenue.)
Pope-Roberts believes the state has the authority to audit ATC, because the company was created in 1999 through an act of the Legislature. "They only exist because they were created by us," she says, adding that she is "disappointed but not surprised" by the lack of an audit.
"It's David versus Goliath," she says. "I know we're going to get turned down every which way we look."
Time to ask questions
The Coalition for Responsible Energy is helping organize a community meeting on ATC next month. The citizens group says ATC's recent "open house" meetings on the power line it wants to build in Dane County presented only one viewpoint: the company's.
"It's time for people to ask questions and get real answers," says Lynne Ballesta, one of the organizers. "It's just a forum so people can be aware of what's going on."
Speakers include Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and David Shutes, a former analyst at Alliant Energy and a longtime critic of ATC's plans for a new transmission line in Dane County.
The meeting will be held Sept. 12, at 6:30 p.m., at the Fitchburg Community Center.
Folding their tents
As if chopping down dozens of mature trees wasn't reason enough to hate the Capitol Square redesign, here's another complaint: Vendors at the Dane County Farmers' Market may no longer be able to use tents to cover their stalls. The state has planted young trees and erected light poles in the space where farmers set up their wares. Both get in the way of pitching a 20-foot tent over a stall.
"Without a tent, vegetables wilt in the hot summer sun," says Richard de Wilde of Harmony Valley Farm. "In the rain, you might as well pack up."
The state has also put new benches and bike racks in the farmers' space. De Wilde says farmers might be able to get creative with the benches, but "a bike rack is just in the way. There's nothing to do except trip over it."
Linda Barth, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, says the state has regularly consulted with the Farmers' Market about the redesign, and few concerns have been raised about the new fixtures. "The questions we've gotten are more about the impact of construction on the market," she says.
The state has finished the first half of the redesign this year and will complete the second half next summer.
Farmers' Market manager Larry Johnson says vendors will have to adapt to the new design. "Our permit allows us to use the space as is, so we do normally work around trees and whatnot," he says. "Vendors are going to have to adjust. Buy smaller tents or whatever."
Go praise yourself
How does David Denig-Chakroff win a national award for leadership just a week before he abruptly resigns as head of Madison's Water Utility? Denig-Chakroff's tenure has been marred by too much manganese and often not enough chlorine in the city's water. Yet last week Madison picked up a "Gold Award" from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies in Washington, D.C., which cited the utility's "strategic plan to make improvements."
As it turns out, Denig-Chakroff is a member of the association's board of directors. And he nominated the utility for the award himself.
"Utilities that feel they have performed at a certain level of management excellence apply for the award," says association spokeswoman Carolyn Peterson. Utilities fill out a questionnaire, which is then reviewed by a panel of judges. Questions include, "Do you have a process for measuring and evaluating customer satisfaction?" and "Do you develop and foster creativity within your organization?"
Peterson would not reveal the utility's answers. Denig-Chakroff did not return a call.
Peterson says winners of the Gold Award will get feted at a conference in Seattle and receive a "lovely trophy."