Steven Walters
The State of Politics

10-Year Shift In State Spending

Big increases for health care, prisons, vouchers, much less for UW, local governments.

By - Aug 29th, 2016 11:26 am

Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Voters on Nov. 8 will elect legislators who will write the next two-year state budget. So citizens may want to know: What 10 programs cost the most state tax dollars? How much of your cash do those 10 programs take? How did the Top 10 priorities change in a decade?

First, some caveats. These totals reflect spending in state government’s general fund, which is its main checkbook. When you pay the 5 percent state sales tax, and personal and corporate income taxes, you’re paying into the general fund.

What does general-fund spending not include? Highway projects (which are heavily dependent on the gas tax). Property taxes collected by school districts and cities, villages, towns and counties. Revenue from your county’s 0.5% local sales tax. Federal aids. Tuition and fees on the 26 UW System campuses.

General-fund spending also reflects the priorities of governors, who can redirect spending through vetoes. Those priorities have changed to judge by how spending changed over the last ten years, for the current 2015-2017 budget signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker versus the 2005-2007 budget signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the 10 most expensive programs in the current 2015-17 budget made up 82 percent of all general-fund spending. Those programs, and spending changes over a decade, are:

No. 1: $10.59 billion in K-12 school aids over two years – 32 percent of all general-fund taxes. In the 2005-07 budget, $10.36 billion in K-12 school aids also ranked first, but it represented 39 percent of the budget. So while spending on schools rose 2 percent in 10 years, its share of total general-funding spending has declined by 7 percentage points.

No. 2: $5.51 billion for Medicaid (MA) and health care accounts for 12.8 percent of all spending. In 2005-07, health-care spending of $3.39 billion also ranked second, when it was about 6.8 percent of state spending. That’s a 62 percent spending increase in 10 years.

No. 3: $2.09 billion in spending for the prison and probation system was 6.4 percent of all general-fund spending. That’s a big jump in priority since 2005-07, when the $1.61 billion spent on corrections ranked it fifth in state spending (behind spending on the UW System and shared revenue to local governments). The 10-year increase in corrections spending was 30 percent.

No. 4: $2.07 billion for the UW System, or 6.3 percent of all current general-fund spending. In 2005-07, the UW System got $1.89 billion, ranking it third on the Top 10 list. The 10-year increase in spending on the UW System was 9.4 percent, but much of that went for debt payments.

No. 5: $1.89 billion in tax credits to hold down property taxes, or 5.8 percent of all general-fund spending. In 2005-07, $938 million was spent to offset property taxes and it was the sixth most expensive program. The 10-year spending increase was 102 percent.

No. 6: $1.69 billion in shared-revenue aid to local governments, who got 5.1 percent of all current spending. In 2005-07, revenue sharing totaled $1.89 billion, which put it in fourth place. The 10-year decrease in shared revenue: 10.5 percent.

No. 7: $1.16 billion in debt-service payments on appropriation bonds, or 3.5 percent of all general-fund spending. In 2005-07, debt-service payments totaled $381 million, which put it in ninth place. But this large increase resulted from how borrowing was structured and does not reflect actual spending.

No. 8: $1.03 billion in aid to technical colleges, or 3.1 percent of current spending. The 2005-07 budget included $272 million for technical colleges – not enough to make that Top 10 list. The 10-year jump in aid to technical colleges includes $406 million a year to offset property taxes the colleges levy.

No. 9: $545 million for the legal system, including judges, court workers and attorneys, or 1.7 percent of all general-fund spending. In 2005-07, these costs totaled $433 million, which put it in eighth place. The 10-year spending increase in this category was 26 percent.

No. 10: $493 million for the private school choice/voucher program allowing students statewide to attend private schools at state expense, or 1.7 percent of all spending. In 2005-07, the Choice program was limited to Milwaukee-area private schools and cost $236 million – not enough to make that Top 10 list. The 10-year increase: Up 108 percent.

Voters may also wonder just how much Transportation Fund spending changed in the last decade. LFB reports that fund’s two-year spending at $6.35 billion – a 26 percent increase over the $5.02 billion spent in 2005-07.

The biggest winners over 10 years? Health care providers, property tax payers, and parents using the voucher program. The biggest losers: local governments who now get less state shared revenue.

Don’t like these trends? Take it up with that candidate who will soon be knocking on your door.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

One thought on “The State of Politics: 10-Year Shift In State Spending”

  1. fred says:

    Are the current figures in the article adjusted for inflation? While annual inflation has been pretty low for quite a while, it still adds up over 10 years. The BLS CPI calculator indicates cumulative inflation of just over 19% for 2006 to 2016. So if the figures in the article for 2015-17 are unadjusted, any change that is less than an 19% increase (like public schools, UW system) is effectively a cut.

    (Note that one could quibble about the 19% figure, as the “basket” of consumer goods used for CPI is not completely accurate when assessing government spending of this sort. But I expect it is still at least in the right ballpark.)

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