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Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012

Issue of the Week: Walker's Hidden Tax on Professionals

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What's the difference between a tax and a fee?

And when is a "raid" a "lapse"?

Gov. Scott Walker's administration is counting on Wisconsinites to be so confused about taxes, fees and lapses that they'll never figure out that professionals are being robbed so that Walker's budget balances "without raising taxes."

When the Republican-led state Legislature passed its two-year budget last summer, it still needed to fill some holes. As a result, various agencies have had to "lapse" some of their revenue back to the state's general coffers. The "lapse" that made the biggest headlines involved the University of Wisconsin System, which had to come up with an extra $65 million for the state's general fund on top of the $250 million cut it got in Walker's state budget. So what is a lapse? When a state agency refuses to hire staff to fill authorized positions or fails to fully implement programs that the Legislature appropriated money for, it has unspent money that is clawed back into the general fund to cover the budget shortfall.

The latest round of $174.3 million in "lapses," including the $65 million from the UW System, is hitting at the direction of the Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch. The rest of the "lapses" are far less obvious than the UW's cuts, but they show just how far Walker is willing to go to make the claim that he balanced the budget without increasing taxes.

One source of the funds is professional licensing fees. These are paid by doctors, real estate agents, cosmetologists—basically anyone who has a license to practice in a profession in Wisconsin. The professional pays the licensing fee, which is used to oversee that profession and discipline wayward license-holders.

In 2009, a doctor's professional licensing fee increased so that the Medical Examining Board could hire more staff and attorneys to ensure that incompetent or unethical doctors would be disciplined or have their licenses revoked.

Now, however, the Walker administration wants to "lapse" $1.25 million of doctors' licensing fees—none of which is state revenue—so that it can balance its budget. That's about 65% of the examining board's annual budget. As a result, the board will have fewer resources to oversee and potentially discipline dangerous doctors. This would literally cost lives because a small number of incompetent doctors are responsible for the majority of malpractice and must be weeded out.

The administration wants to "lapse" an additional $2.5 million of licensing fees from other professions as well.

We're confused.

Isn't this "lapse" really a "raid" on a segregated fund? The same kind of raid that Republicans continuously blasted former Gov. Jim Doyle for doing to balance his budget?

And isn't this an unfair, double tax on professionals who believe that their licensing fees are being used to police their own professions?

Somehow we don't think that these "lapses" will appear in any of Walker's spin-loaded campaign commercials. Just like his Milwaukee County budgets, which fell apart within months of enactment, his state budget is a dishonest sham.

Heroes of the Week: HeartLove Place Volunteers

Serving the Harambee neighborhood on Milwaukee's near North Side, HeartLove Place (3229 N. Martin Luther King Drive) is a faith-based nonprofit working to "unify families, strengthen values and energize a greater sense of community spirit within the central city." The organization provides services and programs for families through its Child Development Center and Family Resource Center.

Studies have shown that children living in poverty have a vocabulary about half that of children who do not live in poverty. In response, HeartLove Place's reading program seeks to increase kids' vocabulary, build self-esteem and foster creativity. Volunteers spend 20-30 minutes one day a week making a difference in the lives of participating children.

Individuals or businesses who want to help inner-city youth get a leg up developmentally are asked to call 414-372-1550 or visit www.heartloveplace.org for more information on this program and many other volunteer opportunities.

Event of the Week: Cedarburg's Winter Festival


In Wisconsin, we know how to keep the fun going in winter. Cedarburg spices up the cold weather with its 38th annual Winter Festival Feb. 4-5. This year's theme is "Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales." Highlights include the Ice-Burg Open Golf Tournament, in which competitors face off with yellow tennis balls in the snow, a hay wagon, an ice-carving contest, the Sno-Ball Tournament, a chili contest, family skating, a pancake breakfast and the Winter Festival Grand Parade. Also among the fun-filled offerings are Saturday's "Costumed Bed-Racing Competition" and barrel races. Historic Cedarburg offers visitors a charming place to stroll and shop, and many of the town's unique businesses will be offering crafts, live music and other activities in conjunction with Winter Festival. For more information, visit www.cedarburgfestivals.org.