There are two problems with Mayor Paul Soglin's threat to veto the city's 2015 budget, one substantive and the other strategic.
The problem on substance is that the mayor is essentially accusing the Madison Common Council of doing a just little bit more of what he already did a lot. Soglin proposed a 2015 capital budget with almost $248 million in borrowing from all sources. The council increased that number to just under $265 million, but some of that increase was already in the mayor's five-year spending plan, so it wasn't really new borrowing over Soglin's proposal. As part of its changes, the council moved up a new west-side police precinct and a south-side fire station, projects that it felt were urgent, and also added back the biodigester project.
What gets missed is that the mayor came to office proclaiming that he would reduce borrowing -- but he increased it instead. The city has a guideline that says repaying debt shouldn't consume more that 12.5% of the operating budget. Over my eight years in office it never did. Now that figure is projected to be over 14% for 2015.
The mayor points to a long-term projection that paying back debt will consume over one-fifth of the city's operating budget in several years. But that is exactly the same projection that Soglin inherited when he took over.
The bottom line is that Soglin has had four budgets to turn this around and he hasn't done it. In fact, borrowing is higher today as a percentage of the operating budget than it was when he took office.
So you can see why the Common Council is so irritated by what appears to be the mayor's grandstanding on the issue. And, in fact, even if the council were to back down and return to Soglin's original budget, the long-term debt service projection would still stand at over 20%. As Alder Denise DeMarb said, "this doesn't move the needle."
The strategic problem with the mayor's threat is that it came out of nowhere. Soglin gave no indication of a veto throughout this two-month process, and right up to the final vote in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, the council had no idea he was contemplating it. Most council members read about the threat in media reports the next day.
An executive's veto authority is an important and sometimes useful tool, but only when it is exercised responsibly. The way to do that is to make it clear in advance when a veto might be coming. So, for example, Soglin might have told the council when he introduced his capital budget back in September that any borrowing over his $248 million in overall borrowing or $133 million in general fund-supported borrowing would court a veto.
The eleventh hour nature of Soglin's move is another thing that's leaving council members' feeling justifiably peeved. And it's not good management. A good manager, in my view, is steady and predictable. This mayor's mercurial nature is good for headlines, but terrible for the quality of decision-making. It's good theater, but bad government.