Fact-checking the Wisconsin state budget

Yixuan Wang (left) and Ke Xiao celebrated their graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the UW System campuses, on May 17, 2015. The UW System faces cuts under the proposed 2015-'17 Wisconsin state budget. (Michael Sears photo)
Yixuan Wang (left) and Ke Xiao celebrated their graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the UW System campuses, on May 17, 2015. The UW System faces cuts under the proposed 2015-'17 Wisconsin state budget. (Michael Sears photo)

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-’17 budget will soon move from the Legislature's budget-writing Joint Finance Committee to the Senate and Assembly for final votes.

We think.

The measure has been hung up over differences among Republicans, who control both chambers, about funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena, levels of transportation borrowing and more.

Since its introduction, PolitiFact Wisconsin has rated nearly 20 statements related to budget, claims that run -- literally -- from how the legislative process began to how the budget is projected to end.

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, complained about a memo from Walker’s administration delivered to the Joint Finance Committee on the eve of its first meeting.

Taylor said the memo included a 110-page list of errors in the budget -- an unusually high number -- "and millions of dollars’ worth of mistakes" that were corrected with the follow-up document. While Taylor was accurate on the numbers, such clean up documents are a routine part of the process. We rated the claim Mostly True.

Meanwhile, Walker said that based on his plan, the state will end up with "a structural surplus of $499 million" at the close of the two-year budget.

Walker correctly quoted the analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, but the claim was a bit premature. The budget is still undergoing changes that will affect the bottomline. We rated the claim Mostly True.

Indeed, many of the claims we examined related to changes state lawmakers have made to Walker’s proposal. Here is a look at how some of the other budget-related claims have fared on the Truth-O-Meter.

Education

Wisconsin Idea: Proposals for sharp cuts to the University of Wisconsin System stirred some of the most attention, starting with a claim from Walker himself that fundamental changes made to the language describing the Wisconsin Idea in the system's mission statement were the result of a "drafting error."

State documents showed that there was considerable back-and-forth between top Walker aides and the staff preparing the budget documents. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

Faculty grants: State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, defending the UW System against a proposed $300 million cut over two years, claimed the "average faculty member at UW-Madison brings in close to a quarter million dollars a year" in grant money. He was right on the numbers, some faculty members don’t bring in any research dollars. We rated the claim Mostly True.

UW System reserves: UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank objected to Walker’s proposed budget cut, saying the system had "spent down reserves" as it was told to do two years ago and  has "no more reserves to spend down."  

While the system did spend down reserves as ordered in the last budget, it still has at a minimum, $54 million in "discretionary reserves" available. We rated the claim Half True.

Teacher standards: Mike Tate, former state Democratic Party chairman, claimed that a Republican proposal inserted into the budget would give Wisconsin the "weakest standards for who can be a teacher in the classroom in the country."

Wisconsin apparently would become the only state not to have a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement for teaching some subjects, including health and foreign languages. But that applies only to sixth through 12th grades. We rated the claim Half True.

Bucks arena

Public-private split: Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce argued that a 50-50 public-private split for paying for a new Milwaukee Bucks arena would "be much better -- in terms of the portion of the public financing -- than most of the other arena projects done around the country."  

We looked at the 15 NBA arenas built around the country since 1999 and found at least eight of them were built with more than 50 percent public financing. We rated the claim True.

(We also took a deep look at Walker’s "cheaper to keep them" slogan for the arena financing plan. We did not put it to the Truth-O-Meter because it has not yet been put in bill form and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has not yet vetted any of the numbers.)

State Parks

Sale of parks? The Democratic Party of Wisconsin claimed Walker’s proposed budget "would sell off Wisconsin’s state parks." Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp said sale of state parks was not under consideration, though selling naming rights to generate revenue might be considered in the future. We rated the claim False.

Wisconsin vs. Illinois: State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, argued that Illinois residents should be charged more to visit Wisconsin state parks because you can’t drink in parks in that state. But we found alcohol consumption is allowed in more than half of Illinois state parks. We rated the claim False.

And ...

Highways: While lawmakers are hung up on Walker’s plan for highway spending, a radio ad from the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association claims that investment in infrastructure is worth it. The ad says "accidents are down 50 percent and injury accidents are down 60 percent" in the rebuilt Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee. When we checked, that’s what the data showed. We rated the claim True.