If our overheated election cycles were not a sufficient reminder of the intensity of our political divisions, then the almost daily vitriolic disputes over issues ranging from mask-wearing to K-12 curricula to the conduct of elections have hammered the point home: Wisconsin is an exceedingly divided state and our political and ideological differences appear to be growing, rather than receding.
So how does a 108-year-old nonpartisan policy think tank function effectively in such a fierce partisan climate? That’s a question our staff ponders every day. It also demands input from our members, which we will again seek from our upcoming year-end members’ survey as well as more extensive surveying later in 2022.
So far, we have attempted to navigate our state’s growing political acrimony by adhering to the following principles:
- Just the facts. We will never back away from tackling politically-charged issues, but when we do so we are determined to stick to the facts. At the same time, we recognize and accept that others undoubtedly will spin them. A good example is our recently released Focus publication documenting the decline in the state’s tax burden over the past two decades (from sixth to 24th-highest among the 50 states). This is an important finding that merited our impartial analysis, which we delivered by simply laying out the trends and the factors that contributed to them. As expected, Republican leaders trumpeted the report and linked our findings to their taxation policies. Those on the left have touted our equally matter-of-fact analyses on the state’s drop in K-12 school and local government spending rankings, which are closely linked to those same taxation policies.
- Cast a wide net. We are careful to choose a broad range of research topics to ensure our choices don’t convey an ideological bent. In recent months, we have published reports on seemingly right-leaning topics like the rise in wheel taxes and the drivers of recent property tax increases; as well as topics that may appear left-leaning, like affordable housing in Milwaukee and the financial struggles of the Milwaukee County Parks. Even for an increasingly ideological topic like K-12 education, we are careful to select research angles that go beyond political disputes, such as recent efforts to explain how charter school funding works in Milwaukee and our body of work on teacher workforce challenges.
- Call for action but don’t prescribe solutions. Our in-depth reports typically present potential policy options and solutions, which is increasingly risky in such a polarized environment. We manage that risk, however, by highlighting issues that clearly merit some action by policymakers and by always presenting a range of options to address them. Recent examples are our reports on statewide fire and EMS staffing challenges and the growing challenges facing Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities. Whether liberal or conservative, most citizens would agree that policymakers need to act in some fashion when dozens of small and mid-sized fire departments are having difficulty fielding appropriate emergency medical responses, or when troublesome trends suggest the UW System is not keeping up with its peers.
We acknowledge the nonpartisan tightrope we’re walking is growing narrower with each passing year. Yet, while in many respects that’s a threat, it’s also an opportunity. We would like to think that most citizens recognize a need for sound public policy analysis to offset the growing proliferation of ideological opinion masquerading as research. In fact, the current trend may be generating a greater thirst for truly impartial discussion and analysis among those more interested in solving difficult problems than scoring points against political foes.
On behalf of the entire Forum staff, here’s to a happy, reasonable, and open-minded New Year – we look forward to working with you in the year ahead!