Mostly True
In 2011 under Scott Walker, Wisconsin for the first time spent "more on our prison system than we did" on the University of Wisconsin System.  

Kelda Helen Roys on Monday, December 11th, 2017 in a candidates forum

Ahead of 2018 election, Gov. Scott Walker attacked for spending more on corrections than colleges

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed his first state budget, for 2011-'13, at a manufacturing facility. (Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The dais was crowded at a candidates’ forum attended by 12 of the Wisconsin Democrats who are running for governor in 2018.

One of them joked that "there's actually another blank name tag up here, so if anybody else wants to get in the race ..."

But much of the event, in Eau Claire on Dec. 11, 2017, was serious, of course.

Candidate Kelda Helen Roys used part of her time to attack Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is running for a third term. Roys, a former state Assembly member from Madison, accused Walker of putting prisons ahead of the University of Wisconsin System, saying:

I think in 2011, it was Walker’s first budget, and we had the dubious distinction of spending -- for the first time in our state’s history -- more on our prison system that we did on the entire UW System.

It’s a claim likely to be repeated during the campaign, so let’s check it out.

Journal Sentinel report

Walker was elected in 2010; his first state budget was for 2011-’13.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2012, that two-year budget allotted, for the first time, more money for prisons and correctional facilities -- that is, for the Department of Corrections -- than for the UW System.

The tallies, after a $250 million cut to the UW System:

$2.25 billion: Corrections

$2.1 billion: UW System

The operations of the Department of Corrections include running 36 adult prisons and correctional facilities, supervising adult offenders who are probation or parole, and managing the state’s two juvenile correctional facilities and community services for juvenile offenders.

The UW System has 13 four-year campuses, including the flagship University of Wisconsin-Madison, 13 two-year campuses (known as the UW Colleges) and a statewide extension with offices in each county.

The Journal Sentinel’s report, which reviewed more than 20 years of Wisconsin state budgets, pointed out that the eclipse in funding between the two agencies was the culmination of years of policy changes made under both Republican and Democratic governors prior to Walker. Also, nationwide, public universities were seeing cuts while prison spending, sparked by sentencing changes put in motion in the 1980s, was going up.

So, the change did occur on Walker’s watch, though it was the culmination of a shift over a period of years.

More numbers

For a little more context, we reviewed all four of the state budgets that have been adopted under Walker and the four adopted previously, all of which were under Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. The figures are from the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Bureau. (We’ve indicated in bold whether the UW System or Corrections got more in each budget.)

State budget

UW System



$1.91 billion

$1.7 billion


$1.93 billion

$1.8 billion


$2.24 billion

$2.17 billion


$2.27 billion

$2.25 billion

2011-’13 (First Walker budget)

$2.1 billion

$2.25 billion


$2.25 billion

$2.32 billion


$2.08 billion

$2.35 billion*


$2.14 billion

$2.43 billion*

*Includes what is known as youth aids funding, to be consistent with prior budgets

The figures show that in the four budgets before Walker, the gap in funding between the UW System and Corrections got smaller in each biennium; and since Walker, Corrections has gotten more money than the UW System.

To be clear, those figures are for state tax dollars only. Corrections is essentially funded entirely with state tax dollars; in contrast, the UW System gets total funding of about $12 billion per year, much of it from federal grants and tuition payments.

One thing that has squeezed the UW System is that, although the increases in its state funding slowed under Doyle, tuition was increased. In contrast, state funding for the UW System has remained roughly the same under Walker, but he has frozen tuition.

A spokesman in the governor’s office didn’t dispute Roys’ claim directly, but said that under Walker the state is now spending more state tax dollars on higher education overall -- including the UW System, the technical college system and other funds -- than it did in 2011. 

Our rating

Roys said that in 2011 under Walker, Wisconsin for the first time spent "more on our prison system than we did" on the University of Wisconsin System.

She’s correct. That occurred with Walker’s first state budget, for 2011-’13, when he directed more state taxpayer dollars to the Department of Corrections than the UW System.

But the eclipse was years in the making before Walker took office, and it’s worth noting that the UW System, with tuition and federal grants, has a much larger total budget than Corrections.

For a statement that is accurate but needs additional information, our rating is Mostly True.

Editor's note: We revised this item on Jan. 12, 2018 to indicate that the governor's office did respond to our request for information. The response had been inadvertently overlooked when this fact check was first posted.

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Mostly True
In 2011 under Scott Walker, Wisconsin for the first time spent "more on our prison system than we did" on the University of Wisconsin System.
In a candidates forum
Tuesday, December 11, 2018