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Walters: State Medicaid, tech colleges spending soared; UW System funding dropped

Numbers are like elections. They matter.

So, as Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators gear up to seek re-election in November, it’s time to consider 15 benchmarks of state government during six years of GOP control.

The benchmarks measure the change from state government’s 2011 fiscal (July through June) year—the last budget of then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle—and the fiscal 2017 budget signed into law by Walker.

Asked about those overall changes, Dale Knapp, the veteran research director for the non-profit Wisconsin Policy Forum noted two problem areas. The new organization was created when the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance and the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum merged.

“Medicaid continues to drive the general fund budget, and is squeezing money from other programs.” Knapp said.

Relied on by one in five Wisconsin residents for health or personal care, state Medicaid spending soared by 81 percent between 2011 and 2017—from $1.45 billion a year to $2.63 billion.

In the same period, the national consumer price index, which measures inflation, increased 9 percent.

The other problem area, Knapp said, is funding highways and other transportation programs.

Between fiscal 2011 and 2017, Transportation Fund spending increased by 7.7 percent—from $1.59 billion to $1.71 billion.

But that increase was paid for by borrowing that rose 23 percent in just five years (2011 to 2016). Wisconsin Policy Forum figures showed annual borrowing went from $1.79 billion to $2.21 billion.

“The challenge in this and future budgets is slow-growing transportation revenues and debt service costs in the transportation fund at more than 20 percent of expenditures,” Knapp said, adding: “Given rising costs and transportation needs, our funding mechanism is probably not sustainable long-term.”

Other changes were more encouraging.

For example, state government’s year-end surplus went from a deficit of $20.5 million in mid-2011 to a healthy $514-million balance last June 30, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Other benchmarks:

  • All-funds state spending up 10 percent: All state spending (state and federal taxes and fees, federal aid and tuition, etc.) was $32.2 billion in 2011 and $35.5 billion last year.
  • General-fund state spending up 17.1 percent. In fiscal 2011, spending paid for by state taxes totaled $13.57 billion; in 2017, $15.89 billion.
  • General-fund tax collections up 20 percent: State personal and corporate income, sales, cigarette and all other tax
  • collections totaled $12.9 billion in fiscal 2011; in 2017, $15.5 billion.
  • State general-fund support for UW System down 6.3 percent. State government’s subsidy of the 26-campus UW System was $1.1 billion in fiscal 2011 and $1.03 billion six years later.
  • State tax dollars for technical colleges up 281 percent. Walker has encouraged more high school students to train for careers by enrolling in technical colleges, instead of four-year colleges and universities. The governor and legislators have backed that up by raising state aid to technical colleges from $136.2 million in fiscal 2011 to $519.4 million last year.
  • Net property tax bill on median-valued home down 3.4 percent: The fiscal bureau reports the net tax bill, which is what the owner of a median-valued home paid after tax credits were subtracted, was $2,953 in December 2011 and $2,851 last year. In that same period, the assessed value of that average home went from $157,692 to $160,622.
  • Net (after tax credits) property tax levy statewide up 4.3 percent. Schools and other local governments levied $9.35 billion in property taxes in December 2011 and $9.76 billion last month.
  • Spending on Department of Corrections up 3.5 percent. State general-fund spending on the prisons, parole and probation system was $1.13 billion in fiscal 2011 and $1.17 billion last year. On Jan. 19 of this year, DOC reported that Wisconsin prisons held 23,149 inmates—about 650 more than in mid-2011.
  • Number of state workers down 2.3 percent. State Department of Administration reports listed 71,797 full-time state workers on June 30, 2011, and 70,095 in mid-2017.
  • GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) deficit: Went from a 2011 deficit of $2.99 billion to a $1.72 billion deficit last year—an improvement of 42 percent. State government runs a large GAAP deficit because it commits a large portion of future state taxes to schools and other local governments.
  • Total state government debt up 6.2 percent. The Wisconsin Policy Forum said all state debts totaled $12.92 billion in mid-2011 and $13.7 billion last year.

Now you can play Trivia Pursuit/State Government Edition. Or ask those candidates who want your vote in November about these benchmarks.

Thumbs up/down for Jan. 29

To back-in parking stalls. Plans unveiled last week for Milwaukee Street’s reconstruction in 2020 seek to make the downtown safer for both drivers and pedestrians. The new parking stalls would require drivers to back in as if parallel parking,

except these spots would be positioned at an angle. Drivers would be able to better see oncoming traffic when exiting the stalls, unlike the current arrangement along Milwaukee Street, which requires drivers to back into traffic when exiting. People who enjoy speeding through downtown will be disappointed with reconstruction plans, but pedestrians should celebrate. The city is proposing, for example, to raise streets to be nearly level with sidewalks at intersections, turning the road into a giant speed bump. Removing stoplights is also being considered, though some people who examined the city’s plans say this change wouldn’t make them feel safer as pedestrians.

To new director selection. Emily Arthur, manager of the Janesville Farmers Market, seems like the ideal pick for the new business improvement district director position. During her two-year tenure as manager of the farmers market, attendance has

more than doubled. Farmers markets have become central to downtown revitalization plans in many urban areas, and the market stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Janesville’s ARISE initiative. Of course, if the farmers market succeeds, so do other businesses. More than any other part of Janesville, the downtown depends on symbiotic relationships. What’s good from one shop is usually good for the one next door. The newly formed district will allow downtown businesses and organizations to improve their coordination and communication, hopefully resulting in more people coming to the downtown.

To city, humane society miscommunication. The city of Janesville and Humane Society of Southern Wisconsin apparently cannot even agree on the number of lost pets reclaimed in Janesville each year. While discussing a proposal to impose a $20

reclamation fee on lost pets, City Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek said the humane society reported 250 to 300 lost pets are reclaimed annually. Humane society Executive Director Brett Frazier said the number is much lower. To determine the merits of this proposal, an accurate number would be helpful. So what is it? The city and humane society sparred last year over renewing the organization’s contract with the city, and lingering bad feelings may be hurting communication. They need to put aside any grudges and craft animal-control policies in the residents’ best interest.

To record-low unemployment. Wait, shouldn’t this be a “thumbs up”? Isn’t Rock County’s 2.7 unemployment rate “wonderful,” as an economist at UW-Whitewater noted last week? Yes, but let’s play devil’s advocate for today. Maybe this low

rate is becoming too much of a good thing. It’s creating headaches for manufacturers desperate for workers, and a shallow labor pool could deter employers from moving here. That a local company, United Alloy, has started visiting taverns during happy hour to try to recruit employees says a lot about labor-market conditions. A labor shortage is certainly preferable to what this region experienced after General Motors closed its plant in 2009, but now the pendulum has begun to swing too far the other way. Companies’ bottom lines will start to suffer if they can’t find or keep quality employees.

Skenazy: How some teens turn into terrorists

Dina Temple-Raston is NPR’s globe-trotting terrorism gal. It blows? She goes. But after 10 years, she says, “it got a little wearing.”

I’ll bet.

While gathering the facts on each attack, she found herself wondering: How did the terrorists get this way? In particular, she couldn’t get over how young many of the recruits were. Al-Qaida seemed to attract men in their 20s and 30s. But the Islamic State group was attracting teenagers.

Off she went to interview the young people themselves—teens who’d made disastrously terrible decisions—as well as a gaggle of brain scientists. The result is her six-episode Audible podcast series, “What Were You Thinking? Inside the Adolescent Brain.”

As it turns out, the adolescent brain is sort of hard-wired to make some decisions many parents (and cops and judges) find wrong. And in a strange way, that’s reassuring.

Take, for instance, a young man named Ryan Green in Paducah, Kentucky. “You meet Ryan, and it’s hard not to like him,” says Temple-Raston. But he’s a guy who hacked 77,000 computers. Did he do it to screw the world?

It seems he was more concerned about being considered an “elite” hacker and earning street cred—something a whole lot of adolescents crave on the basketball court or even the debate team. Peer respect activates the “feel-good chemical” in the brain—dopamine—which seems to push young people to take risks and work incredibly hard at something, even when that something is not what you’d put on your college applications.

On her show, Temple-Raston doesn’t just describe what the brain scientists are discovering about how kids are wired. She also travels to places working on innovative solutions to the problems—whether that’s teen radicalization, suicide or murderous rage. In the case of teen hackers, she went to Israel. There the government actively scouts for computer talent at a very young age and nurtures those kids so they can eventually work for the good of the country—rather than against it. Maybe America needs to do the same.

Temple-Raston also interviewed Abdullahi Yusuf, a Minnesota high school football player who was just about to board a plane to join the Islamic State group when the authorities stopped him. Turns out it’s quite possible that this was not a young man drawn to cruelty but the opposite. He’d read about women and children suffering atrocities in Syria and wanted to help them. The Islamic State was doing just that—he thought. (This was before it started beheading people.)

In adolescence, the empathy part of the brain is basically “throbbing,” says Temple-Raston. So if your teenager is in tears because you’re eating a burger and meat is murder, you shouldn’t be that surprised. During those formative years, a cause can become a young person’s world—even a cause that looks crazy from the outside.

In another episode, Temple-Raston interviews the parents of teens who have killed themselves. With social media, news of a teen death spreads like wildfire. Everyone’s talking about it and perhaps then thinking about it. Recently, some towns, such as Colorado Springs, have suffered “suicide contagion,” with up to 16 such tragedies a year.

What can be done? In Britain, there’s a new app teens can tap when they’re at their lowest. “So if you are feeling sad, they have a bunch of kids who have felt the same way who’ll get on the line and talk to you.” The teens learn they’re not alone. (By the way, here in America, there’s a confidential hotline, too: 800-273-8255.)

Of course, most teens will never shoot anyone or join a holy war. But it’s quite likely they’re a little high-strung and passionate about a cause you, the parent, are not passionate about. Bottom line: It’s probably not your parenting causing this rift; it’s their brains. And soon enough, they’ll be back to normal.

It just may not feel soon enough.