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Our View: Budget shortfall requires wise, fair decisions
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So, here we go again.

Just when Wisconsin lawmakers thought they were out of budget talks for a while, the national economy pulls them back in.

A national recession - or something that looks a heckuva lot like one - is expected to impact state sales tax receipts. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau last week issued a warning that state tax collections could be between $300 million and $400 million less than projected by the end of the current budget period, which ends in 17 months.

That prompted Gov. Jim Doyle to issue his own warning in the annual State of the State address - that cuts and sacrifices will be necessary to make up for the likely budget shortfall. (Local governments relying on sales taxes to pay for, say, justice centers also ought to at least be weighing their own Plan Bs.)

That has forced a lot of discussion in Madison about where additional budget cuts can and should come from.

One interesting idea was put forth Monday by One Wisconsin Now - yes, that One Wisconsin Now, the group that unfairly smeared Republican Rep. Brett Davis of Oregon on the virtual schools issue a week or so ago. OWN on Monday began a petition drive urging lawmakers to fill the projected budget shortfall "not by slashing critical programs to the poor, elderly and disabled, but by reinstating the inheritance tax for the heirs and heiresses of Wisconsin's wealthiest, which expired Jan. 1."

The estate tax has been called the "Death Tax" by those who oppose it and the "Paris Hilton Tax" by others who think it's only fair that rich people pay taxes for the financial gains they make through inheritance. Interestingly, OWN pointed out that the new tax break cost the state $300 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Reinstating the inheritance tax would be a better option than, say, cutting funding to FamilyCare, public schools or the UW System.

Although further budget cuts loom, that hasn't stopped talk of additional spending. Some of it is warranted; some of it, not.

Republicans have rightfully applauded the governor for his economic development proposals included in the State of the State speech. Doyle supports a variety of tax breaks, incentives, grant programs and other initiatives to promote growth in the state's manufacturing, business and agriculture industries. In an economic downturn, state government cannot neglect investments that can spur business and job growth.

Meanwhile, lawmakers must resist the temptation to support feel-good legislation, like a draft bill authored last week by Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie. To help local governments through heavy-snow winters like the one we're enduring in Wisconsin now, Hebl wants to set up a "snowy day fund" that would provide grants of up to $50,000 to municipalities struggling to pay for road maintenance. Communities would be eligible to seek the grants if their region gets more snow than the five-year average. The money would come from the state road fund.

But the road fund, like the budget in general, already is strained. Unfortunately, state government is not in a position to shovel extra funds to municipalities for snow plowing. Local governments will have to budget, and save, wisely to keep up. And if local governments are going to spend more money on snow cleanup than budgeted, they'll have to make their own decisions on where to make cuts to compensate.