In modern politics, Republican strategist Karl Rove is often credited with popularizing the strategy of attacking an opponent’s strength to neutralize a perceived advantage for the other side.
Madison Democrat Mary Burke has trotted out the tactic early in her bid to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in November 2014.
She’s labeled Walker a big spender.
Asked by a Madison Capital Times reporter if she supported the $650 million income tax cut signed by Walker in 2013, the former state Commerce secretary said she would have wanted to see whether it put the state budget in a strong position going forward.
But she suggested strongly that it didn’t.
"You've seen where we're now going from a $700 million surplus to getting into the next biennium with almost a $750 million deficit," Burke said in the interview published Nov. 6, 2013. "I'd love to be able to do tax cuts, but they have to be done in a way that is benefiting the state and is setting us up for fiscal responsibility in the long term."
Walker frequently touts his frugal budgeting ways and emphasis on tax cuts.
Did he really turn a state surplus red?
Yes and no.
We’ve tested one of Burke’s numbers before: Walker’s first budget (covering July 2011- June 2013) ended with a cash balance of $759 million, according to an accounting prepared in October 2013 by the nonpartisan budget scorekeeping agency, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The bureau is considered the gold standard for independent budget scorekeeping. It is also what Burke cited when we asked her for backup.
Many readers may not be familiar with the second number she cites, the $750 million "deficit."
The Fiscal Bureau came up with that figure, too, so Burke mentions two credible figures.
But the negative number she mentions is not a concrete figure that compares easily to the hard-cash surplus Burke cites.
It’s a rough projection of the amount of tax-collection growth the Legislature and governor will need in mid-2015 to balance the next two-year budget, covering 2015-’17.
Legislators use it as an exercise and a benchmarking tool.
During budget deliberations, they’ll call Bob Lang, Fiscal Bureau director, and ask how a tax cut -- or a spending increase for a certain program -- would affect the potential size of this budget gap down the road. The estimate is officially known as the "structural deficit," which Burke shorthands as "deficit."
It’s rough because Lang doesn’t try to guess how much tax collections might rise or fall, or factor in demand for Medicaid health programs, for example.
But, in part due to the tax cuts Burke discussed, it’s true that the structural deficit heading into Walker’s third budget is now estimated at that $725 million figure Burke mentioned.
So there’s truth in her overall point.
But we won’t have a hard number to compare to the 2013 Walker surplus until 2015.
For the record, Walker’s two budgets have recorded the lowest "structural deficits" since Lang started keeping track in 1997.
It’s not even close; they ranged from $1.5 billion to $2.9 billion before Walker. His first budget actually wiped out the structural deficit entirely heading into his second budget.
We’ve dealt with similar mismatched numbers on the Truth-O-Meter before.
We rated Half True a Walker claim that,"The $3.6 billion deficit we inherited has turned into more than a half-billion-dollar surplus."
His numbers also checked out individually, and his overall point on the big turnaround from red to black in his first budget is correct. But he mixed different ways to define the size of the turnaround, throwing the numbers off a bit.
Burke said the state is going from a $700 million surplus "to getting into the next biennium with almost a $750 million deficit."
Her numbers check out, and she properly identifies a big swing in Walker’s budgeting, but -- like Walker’s similar claim -- there’s a problem because the two numbers aren’t easily compared.
We rate her claim Half True.