Public Policy Forum Blog

Time for a new Kettl Commission?

A Democratic governor, tired of complaints from municipalities about cuts in state aids, says the whole municipal aid formula should be scrapped and vows to come up with a new one by the end of the year. While he's at it, he says he'll tackle the state's school aid formula and figure out a better way of compensating its urban hospitals for indigent care.

Governor Jim Doyle, perhaps? No, but perhaps it could be and should be. The governor in question is Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who says in a recent New York Times article that while the existing formulas "may have very well served the state at one point," they "don't relate to the realities of the world today."

Many would argue that our state's shared revenue and school aid formulas similarly are far removed from today's realities. Just ask Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who noted in a recent Journal Sentinel candidate questionnaire that "erosion" in the city's shared revenue payments has left its 2008 payment "23% lower in inflation-adjusted terms than its 1996 payment". Or Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who noted in his questionnaire that he would gladly forsake a portion of the County's shared revenue in return for moving "the cost of courts entirely to the state".

The state's school aid formula, meanwhile, has been a source of controversy for years, particularly in terms of how it affects Milwaukee and accounts for the city's voucher program. And the issue of compensating hospitals for indigent care recently has moved to the forefront in light of the Governor's proposed hospital assessment.

Eight years ago, Governor Tommy Thompson vowed to do something about these issues by appointing the "Blue-Ribbon Commission on State-Local Partnerships for the 21st Century", otherwise known as the "Kettl Commission" (after its chairman, Donald F. Kettl). The Commission's report, released in January 2001, contained numerous recommendations, the most prominent of which was to establish and define a "Badger Basics" package of education, human needs and justice services that the State would commit to fully funding.

Unfortunately, as many anticipated, the Kettl Commission recommendations have largely remained just that. Having staffed a member of the Commission, I believe this was due in large part to its composition and agenda, both of which were far too big. Perhaps today we need a more focused effort that would concentrate first on the issues of human services and justice funding.

Why those two? For one thing, voters across the state have voted overwhelmingly in referenda to have these mandated areas fully funded by the state. And for another, several recent developments create a crying need to review not only the funding, but also the existing roles and responsibilities of all levels of government in administering and providing services in those two areas.

In human services, the state's takeover of child welfare and privatization of W-2 in Milwaukee County, its move toward privatization and/or regionalization of family care throughout the state, and the creation of its new Department of Children and Families, make the time ripe for reconsideration of who does and pays for what. And with regard to justice services, recent movement toward community corrections and alternatives to incarceration across the state and nation, combined with increased understanding of the need to better link these initiatives and human services, makes this an ideal time to consider better coordination, as well as more logical funding mechanisms.

While I've never had much faith in blue ribbon commissions, we need to do something to bring better logic and accountability to these two state-mandated functions. Could a smaller Kettl Commission with a more narrow focus turn out something actionable this time around?

Rob Henken