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Haley BeMiller
By Haley BeMiller March 17, 2020

Tony Evers' school funding idea a partial reversal of past position

If Your Time is short

  • The state learned in early 2020 that it had $452 million to use for extra spending or a tax cut.
  • In a Jan. 26, 2020 interview Gov. Tony Evers said it was too early to make a decision about how to use the surplus, but said he wanted to be cautious.
  • A week later, Evers asked lawmakers to take up a measure that would allocate $252 million of the extra funds for education and property tax relief.

Battles over what to do with extra money in the state’s coffers were a hallmark of Wisconsin’s 2020 legislative session.

After learning that the state is expected to take in more from tax collections than previously estimated, Republican Senate and Assembly leaders and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers clashed over how to spend a projected $452 million in surplus revenue

Republicans pushed a tax cut that would have used much of that amount, but Evers vetoed the measure on Feb. 26, 2020. The surplus will now sit in the state’s bank account.

But before the veto, the conservative MacIver Institute claimed in a Feb. 12, 2020, email that Evers flip-flopped when he said the state shouldn’t use the funds for ongoing expenses, then proposed using some of it for schools. 

We decided this would be a good time to break out our Flip-O-Meter.

A reminder: The Flip-O-Meter gauges whether a politician has been consistent on an issue. It doesn’t measure whether any change makes good policy or good politics.

Let’s take a look at what Evers said about spending state surpluses.

The background

The state learned in early 2020 that it is projected to take in $818 million more than expected through June 2021. Most of that was designated for the state’s rainy-day fund right away, but lawmakers had $452 million to use for extra spending or a tax cut.

The surplus is considered one-time revenue, like when a relative dies and leaves you $10,000 in their will. In other words, it’s not guaranteed to be there in the next budget.

What’s more, the funding is based on projected tax collections, so the situation could change — for instance as the coronavirus disrupts the economy. 

In a Jan. 26, 2020 interview on WISN TV’s UpFront, Evers said it was too early to make a decision about how to use the surplus, but said he wanted to ensure "we don’t pay for one-time things that somehow next session we’re gonna have to find the money for." 

He also said he wanted to be cautious.

So, that’s our starting point on Evers’ views about the current surplus.

A week later, Evers asked lawmakers to take up a measure that would allocate $252 million of the extra funds for education and property tax relief, including a boost for rural school funding, school-based mental health services and special education services.

The MacIver Institute argues this was a shift in position.

"Initially, I was ecstatic that Governor Evers was going to do the right thing with the surplus and be cautious," said MacIver Institute President Brett Healy in a news release. "What he proposed, however, is not fiscally conservative or smart. Using this one-time surplus to permanently build the base of K-12 education spending will only lead to increased pressure in the future to raise taxes to sustain it."

Jason Stein of the Wisconsin Policy Forum said one-time payments for schools tend to be capital projects or tied to specific initiatives like school safety. But most of the state’s school funding is paid to programs on an ongoing basis, and Stein said Evers’ surplus plan fit that mold.

"In general, it appeared to be increases in ongoing programs and funding," he said of the proposal.

Case closed?

Not entirely.

While Evers shifted his position on use of one-time money for ongoing expenses, he has been consistent on one front: That surplus money should be used to increase funding for schools.

The governor similarly pushed in 2019 for a surplus to be used, in part, for funding technical colleges, along with a one-time debt payment and worker training.

In Wauwatosa on Feb. 26, 2020, as he vetoed the GOP plan, Evers said he would consider cutting income taxes and reducing state debt — measures pushed by Republicans — but wants any agreement to include school funding and property tax relief.

And in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin, the governor’s office defended Evers’ statement and plans as consistent with his previous views on surpluses. A spokeswoman also noted that his education proposal called for using only some of the available surplus. 

Our ruling

Evers said he wanted to be cautious about the projected surplus and not use it to fund ongoing expenses. A week later, he proposed using some of that money to boost school funding, which at least one outside expert said, as constructed, amounted to an ongoing expense.

That amounts to a switch. At the same time, Evers has so far been consistent on what surplus money should be used for: Supporting education.

When it comes to how to handle the surplus, we view this as a partial change in position.

As such, we give Evers a Half Flip.

Our Sources

Wisconsin to collect $818 million more than expected through June 2021, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jan. 23, 2020.

'UPFRONT' recap: Gov. Evers says it's too early to decide what to do with extra tax revenue, WISN, Jan. 26, 2020.

Tony Evers proposes mix of school spending and tax relief, but GOP wants all the funds for tax cut, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 6, 2020.

Evers Does a 180: Policy Backgrounder On Education Spending, MacIver Institute, Feb. 12, 2020.

Email from Britt Cudaback, deputy communications director from the Office of Gov. Tony Evers, Feb. 17, 2020.

GOP's $250 million income tax cut appears to be headed to an Evers veto, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 21, 2020.

Wisconsin to take in $753 million more than estimated; lawmakers split on what to do with it, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 15, 2019.

Gov. Tony Evers vetoes tax cut, says Republicans should have put more toward schools, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 26, 2020.

Interviews with Jason Stein, Wisconsin Policy Forum, March 4, 2020 and March 12, 2020.
Nearly $45 million in Wisconsin school safety grants is left over as AG Brad Schimel seeks new ways to spend, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 6, 2018.

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