Twenty years ago, we had just survived the Y2K fear that all of our computers would shut down on Jan. 1, 2000, unable to handle dates beyond 1999. Our computers did fine.
But it’s important to consider how state government spending priorities have changed over those 20 years. Legislative Fiscal Bureau summaries of general-fund spending for the 1999-2001 and 2019-21 biennial budgets show that programs can be lumped into two categories—Biggest Gainers and Biggest Losers.
By far, the Biggest Gainer was the state’s Medicaid program that provides health care for the poor, elderly and disabled.
In the 1999-2001 budget, state taxpayers paid $2 billion as their share of Medicaid costs. In the current 2019-21 budget, taxpayers will pay $6.7 billion. Medicaid costs more than tripled, while inflation over that period was 53%.
Another way to measure the explosion in Medicaid costs: In the 1999-2001 budget, Medicaid spending accounted for 9% of total general-fund spending. But that percentage almost doubled to 17% in 20 years.
No one yet knows the impact that COVID-19 will have on the 2021-23 budget that Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will give Republicans, who control the Legislature, in February.
But Medicaid costs could easily be the toughest budget number for Evers and Republican leaders to agree on because the governor will again ask that Medicaid be expanded, largely with federal funds, to provide health care for more middle-income Wisconsin residents.
In his Nov. 20 budget update, Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan said expanding Medicaid would mean that only $597 million more in general-fund dollars would be needed to fund Medicaid through mid-2023.
Expanding Medicaid “will save state taxpayers $588 million in the upcoming biennium, and allow the state to draw down more than $1.5 billion in additional federal dollars, while providing affordable health coverage to an additional 98,000 Wisconsinites,” Brennan added.
But Republican leaders blocked the governor’s request to expand Medicaid in 2019 and plan to kill it again. In separate year-end interviews, two GOP leaders—Rep. Mark Born, new cochair of the Joint Finance Committee, and new Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu—opposed expanding Medicaid.
The next Biggest Gainer over the last 20 years was state aid for K-12 schools. That’s no surprise, since it’s a priority of all state officials.
Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports show that K-12 school aids totaled $8.6 billion in the 1999-2001 budget, and $12.25 billion in the current 2019-21 spending plan, a 42% increase.
K-12 spending accounted for 38% of all general-fund spending 20 years ago and 32% in the current budget.
Carolyn Sanford Taylor, the state superintendent of public instruction who is not seeking re-election in April, has requested $1.6 billion more for the 2021-23 budget, partly due to the impact of COVID-19 on schools.
Sanford Taylor wants more for K-12 schools than the $1.3 billion jump in general-fund tax collections by mid-2023 that Brennan predicted in November. Evers, a former state superintendent, must reconcile that gap in his budget proposal.
Another Big Gainer over 20 years was spending on the state prison system. Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports say the Corrections Department budget was $1.17 billion in 1999-2001 but twice that, or $2.35 billion, in the current budget.
Evers has said his next budget proposal will include criminal-justice reform that would cut prison system costs.
One more Big Gainer over 10 years was School Choice, which allows students to attend private schools with a state-paid voucher. Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports didn’t include Choice as a major spending item in the 1999-2001 budget but said it will cost taxpayers $726 million in the current budget.
What state program was the Biggest Loser over the last 20 years?
Shared revenue aid to local governments leads that list. It totaled $2.1 billion in the 1999-2001 budget, but fell by 19%—to $1.7 billion—in the current budget.
That 19% drop in state aid, inflation and limits on property tax levies have local government leaders saying they will be forced to continue cutting services.
One other loser over two decades were Wisconsin taxpayers.
Why? The 1999-2001 budget included a one-time sales tax rebate of $700 million. That won’t be repeated in the pandemic-stressed budget Evers and Republican legislators must agree on by July 1.