The Wisconsin Budget has Lots of Missing Numbers

“Why don’t these numbers add up?” the school board member asked me. He was looking at the summary tables on dollars for schools in the new state budget. “Because numbers are missing,” I told him, realizing there are a lot of missing numbers.

The Legislature is given a 519 page “summary” of the budget to consider but nowhere can you find numbers to compare this year’s budget requests for particular programs to dollars actually spent under the previous budget.

There are no numbers clearly showing the increases or decreases in each individual program. There are no numbers showing what was accomplished by the spending.

Most of the budget numbers compare the Governor’s request for new spending to “the base year doubled”.  For anyone looking for real numbers this creates a problem because “the base year doubled” is just a place to start - an imaginary number. It is what you would get if you took the budgeted or expected spending in the current state fiscal year - which ends on June 30th - and doubled that number.

Budget analysts assume an estimate of what was budgeted last year is a reasonable starting place. Details given to legislators are changes to the base – not to how much was actually spent for specific programs. Without the real numbers it is difficult to answer the question: Can this program be better run with fewer dollars? What is really happening at the specific program level is often buried and nearly impossible for legislators or the public to dig out.

For example, let’s look at the Department of Health Services (DHS).

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau staff, DHS buried in the $7 billion Medicaid base-funding request is a nearly 3% increase in rates paid to Medicaid HMOs. Buried in the $663 million cost to continue is a 2% increase to HMOs to compensate them for a new federal excise tax. Also buried in the cost to continue is a 2% increase for HMOs to “ensure an adequate network”.

A total of 7% increase in money is going to HMOs.

HMOs already receive a 14% skim off all state payments to cover their administrative costs. For every dollar the HMO pays out they keep 14 cents. With this budget they receive another seven cents on each dollar.

But what really troubles me is that NOWHERE was this increase detailed so citizens could clearly see what they are buying.

Another example: increases for choice and independent charter schools. To determine how much this cost I added up numbers from 19 different pages.

The entire private choice school/independent charter expansion is budgeted to cost state taxpayers over $185 million including the $70 million taken right out of the budget of local schools. Nowhere is a summary of this spending clearly laid out. Nor can I find the total Wisconsin already spends on these private schools.

Last year during an Audit Committee hearing I asked the DHS to explain their budgeting. They brought stacks of documents to the hearing and smiled when they answered “just ask the question and we’ll give you the answer.”

The problem is with a nearly $70 billion dollar budget and over 1,100 programs, the complexity of state government makes it difficult for the average concerned citizen or legislator to know where to begin asking questions about missing numbers.

And there is little opportunity to ask questions. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee scheduled only four public hearings on the budget. Very few, if any, of the 1,100 programs are going to get any public scrutiny – particularly when much of the time will be taken up with the non-budget policy items included in the budget bill.

The way we do the budget gives a lot of power to the Governor, which is the way Governors of both parties like it. No Governor will voluntarily change the budget process. 

If the Legislature is going to use the budget to review what agencies are doing with their programs and hold agency officials responsible for accomplishments, the Legislature needs to take the lead in changing the way we do budgets in Wisconsin.