These principles should guide Wisconsin lawmakers as they confront the current public health and economic crisis

By David Fladeboe for the Badger Institute

Wisconsin, like the rest of the nation, is facing an unprecedented crisis as we battle COVID-19. With large swaths of the economy shut down or reduced to fight the pandemic, governments at all levels are working to address the fallout. Now that Congress has passed a series of bills to address the emergency, Wisconsin lawmakers are considering next steps.

Gov. Tony Evers released proposed legislation at the end of March and asked legislators to act quickly. While the Badger Institute has already pointed out positive policy prescriptions in his executive orders and proposed legislation, Wisconsin lawmakers need to ensure that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.

Below are a series of guiding principles that should act as a framework for the coming Extraordinary Session of the Legislature.

First, lawmakers should hesitate to take any actions that grow the size and scope of government permanently. Ongoing appropriations, permanent full-time equivalent positions and new layers of red tape should be avoided at all costs.

While the structures of government can help fight a crisis, policymakers need to avoid new layers of bureaucracy that can be just as damaging to public and economic wellbeing. Numerous states and the federal government have been relaxing requirements, regulations and licensing complications to help combat the coronavirus, and these efforts should be continued. Too often the tool created to help serves only to tie our hands in the future.

Next, elected officials need to be careful not to create a long-lasting, one-size-fits-all solution for future health emergencies. Recent policy statements from Wisconsin lawmakers indicate a desire to extend changes made to fight COVID-19 to future crises. But each challenge brings its own unanticipated difficulties, requiring unique approaches and tools.

Future policymakers, communities, businesses and residents will need the flexibility to respond to emergency situations without encountering rigid, imposed “solutions” that could make problems worse. Be wary of policies that automatically trigger the next time an emergency is declared.

Finally, don’t plunge the state into a sea of debt that might make matters worse over the long term. Responsible policies contributed to a state budget surplus that has helped soften the blow of this economic crisis. We need to maintain sound economic thinking and fiscal prudence while supporting those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. New spending must be weighed against the reality that tax revenues are going to be down sharply in 2020 and possibly beyond.

The Badger Institute estimates that Wisconsin could face a $100 million deficit in the transportation budget alone due to a decrease in gas tax collections. Reductions in sales and income tax revenues could be even more severe. Wisconsin’s economy will recover, but before we know the true cost and recovery curve, legislators need to be cautious about signing a check they can’t cash. The empty promises of a bankrupt government won’t help anyone.

If lawmakers keep in mind the long-term consequences of their actions, they can help Wisconsin navigate this storm. Significant policy reforms will be needed, but they can’t come at the expense of our future. A lot of damage already has been done to try to stop the spread of COVID-19; now is our opportunity to stem the tide and prepare ourselves for a vibrant and lasting recovery.

David Fladeboe is public affairs associate for the Badger Institute.