5 top Wisconsin Policy Forum findings of 2022
The Wisconsin Policy Forum is a statewide nonpartisan, independent policy research organization. Their reports analyze a variety of critical policy issues that impact our communities.
Each new year, the Forum looks at its findings from the past year to see how it uncovers information relevant to upcoming policy debates at both state and local levels. This past year has been a noticeable contrast to other recent years.
"As we look back at our top five for 2022, only one of the five was in the government finance category. A couple of others, certainly related to government finance," says Wisconsin Forum President, Rob Henken. "I think [that's] a reflection of the fact it was not a state budget year ... but it also shows the broad range of policy challenges facing our community and our state."
Henken details 2022's top five research findings:
1. Public Health departments need to advance to "the next level"
Milwaukee county commissioned a report last February to assess the public health departments' post-pandemic statuses. The report was designed to identify possible areas of improvement and determine if further coordination, collaboration or consolidation is necessary. The report discovered a general need to modernize operations.
"When you look across these 11 health departments, they are still doing many of the activities that they were doing 20 years ago. And the thinking on the federal level and the state level has changed during that time," says Henken. "The finding was a need for Milwaukee County health departments to move more aggressively toward those types of activities."
2. The city and state-wide disparity between Black and white homeownership
While analyzing homeownership, the disparity between white homeownership and minority, particularly Black, homeownership became observable. Madison, Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee were specific cities that were researched along with the state as a whole. In Milwaukee, 56% of white residents own their own homes compared to 27% of Black residents. The statewide disparity of 72% white homeownership to 25% Black is more prominent.
Henken says, "In a subsequent report, we compared Milwaukee to some peer cities nationally and found that Milwaukee stands out among its peers with an unusually high disparity. In terms of Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, we're seeing that this is a statewide challenge."
3. School spending in relation to state local taxes
Two metrics the Forum and its predecessor organizations have tracked for years have been school spending and state and local taxes. This past year revealed that Wisconsin school districts average about $12,740 per student, ranking 25th in the nation and 5.6% below the national average. Compared to Wisconsin's rank 20 years ago of 11th in 2002, that number has fallen due to lower tax burdens.
"Clearly our efforts to reduce the tax burden are linked to a fall in our per student spending on K12 education, which is not surprising because K12 education is one of the very biggest sources of public expenditure in Wisconsin and in other states," says Henken.
4. High turnover in the public sector
One of the lasting impacts of the pandemic is people leaving the workforce due to early retirement and other factors. The tight labor markets on both national and local fronts are consistently present. However, public sector workers are leaving the workforce disproportionately.
"We found that in 2021 more than 17,000 individuals left the WRS's active employee ranks for reasons besides retirement, death, or disability. So, that means they were leaving either because they were leaving the workforce for some other reason than to retire, or they were moving to a different sector," says Henken. "Regardless of what the causes are, the fact that we are seeing this exodus of public sector workers really has impacts. Clearly, the need for the public sector to keep up with inflation in terms of wages and benefits is very, very real."
5. Milwaukee's worsening fiscal forecast
The Forum has persistently covered Milwaukee's deteriorating fiscal condition for a while with reports done in 2009, 2016 and 2022. Last year's report revealed how some of the reserve funds are particularly low.
"The most striking [takeaway] was the extent to which the cities previously healthy reserves had been diminished, and the extent to which the entirety of its long term liabilities had just grown," says Henken. "For example, liabilities like pensions, retiree healthcare and capital debt, grew from 1.9 billion to 4.4 billion in the five years. The city's unassigned general fund balance had fallen from 61.7 million, which is was a a relatively healthy reserve in 2015, to just 9.1 million by the end of 2021."