1st Quarter 2019 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

The Wisconsin Policy Forum’s recent release of our first-ever State of Wisconsin Budget Brief marks another milestone in the successful merger between the Public Policy Forum and Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Both legacy organizations had proud histories of publishing impartial fiscal analysis that educated the public and promoted fiscal responsibility. Hopefully, our members and supporters will agree that our state budget brief upholds those legacies.

The state budget brief continues a tradition of the former PPF, which produced annual briefs of the same general length and format on the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, and Milwaukee Public Schools budgets for years (a tradition we continue as WPF). With the state brief behind us and our work about to begin on the 2019-20 MPS budget brief, this is a good time to review the purpose of such work and solicit your feedback.

The Milwaukee-based budget briefs originated from our observation that the finances of the region’s three largest local government entities (each with budgets of about $1.3 billion) were a mystery to many citizens, including business, neighborhood, and civic leaders who have a major stake in the financial health of their local governments. Media coverage typically focuses on specific conflicts that arise on individual issues between legislative leaders and the chief executives who propose the budgets; yet, citizens often are in the dark about the structural challenges, cost drivers, and revenue shortfalls that produce such conflicts.

Our budget briefs are designed to overcome that knowledge gap. We strive to provide enough information to allow interested parties to grasp each government’s basic financial framework, the specific expenditure and revenue challenges facing the government that year, and how the proposed budget resolves them. Yet, at the same time, we try not to get so far into the weeds that we lose readers who want to understand the big picture but don’t need all the details.

Another important goal is to objectively frame the key issues and decisions that are at the heart of the budget – not only for citizens, but also for policymakers themselves. Our “keys to understanding the budget” provide balanced perspective to counter the fierce rhetoric that often surrounds such issues. Our goal is not to take sides or settle debates, but rather to ensure that interested parties have access to impartial analysis that hopefully will drive better understanding and informed decision-making.

Finally, our budget briefs strive to analyze and explain how decisions made in the context of a one- or two-year budget reflect and impact deeper structural issues. Too often, as difficult individual budget decisions become embroiled in political controversy, the causes and effects of longer-term financial challenges are ignored. We seek to illuminate such structural problems and call out budget proposals that worsen them.

In the wake of the merger, transferring this basic rationale and approach from Milwaukee’s largest local governments to state government made a lot of sense. A conundrum, however, was how to ensure that our work would not simply duplicate that of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which produces a far more comprehensive analysis of the budget with its own indelible brand of impartiality and expertise. We hope we accomplished that objective by focusing mainly on the “keys” and producing a report that achieves the right balance between explanation and analysis for our audience, which is broader and less immersed in budget details than that of LFB.

That’s where you come in. We’re interested in hearing whether you found our state budget brief interesting and informative, and/or what you think we should change about the state budget report and our entire portfolio of briefs. You can do so by sending me an e-mail at