4th Quarter 2022 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

When leaders of the former Public Policy Forum and Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance reached out to key stakeholders to gauge their reaction to a potential merger five years ago, a pair of seemingly contradictory concerns emerged.

WisTax supporters worried that while we fully intended to be a statewide policy research organization, the plethora of critical issues facing Milwaukee ultimately would lead us to abandon that goal and revert back to PPF’s main focus on southeast Wisconsin. Conversely, our long-time PPF supporters expressed doubt that we could really sustain our robust and badly needed Milwaukee-based research agenda while adding state government and a statewide focus on local governments and school districts to our research portfolio.

As I reflect on our performance in 2022, I’m feeling pretty good about our ability to thread that needle. A look back shows that we maintained our coverage of important statewide issues while also providing in-depth analysis of key challenges facing our largest and arguably most distressed metro region.

We set goals for ourselves at the start of each year for total, statewide, and southeast Wisconsin research publications. In 2022, our 56 publications exceeded our goal of 52, while we exceeded our target of 34 publications with statewide scope by two and beat our goal of 12 metro Milwaukee-focused publications by six. (Remaining publications were either metro Madison-focused or addressed a different geographic region, such as our Fox Valley fire department service sharing study.)

While the balance shifted a little more heavily to metro Milwaukee than we ideally would have liked, we are proud of publishing 36 reports on statewide policy issues. It is also important to recognize that 2022 was not a state budget year, which decreased the number of state government issues that caught our attention.

Among the important matters of statewide significance we covered were financial issues like the state’s tax burden, income tax changes, and use of its budget surplus; education issues like statewide K-12 spending trends, school leader turnover, and college financial aid allocations; and economic issues like pandemic recovery in Wisconsin’s air travel, real estate, and arts and culture sectors. We also covered a slew of issues that were relevant to local governments statewide, including an analysis of the financial challenges facing towns and reviews of local room tax revenues and municipal debt.

Meanwhile, our 18 southeast Wisconsin publications included several that originated from requests by local government leaders themselves and other local groups. For example, we produced request-driven, in-depth reports on the public health function in Milwaukee County; the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s upcoming decision on continued outsourcing of its wastewater treatment operations; the prospect for police consolidation in Milwaukee County’s North Shore; and the city of Milwaukee’s untenable fiscal condition. We also sustained our commitments to annually review Milwaukee’s city, county, and school district budgets and to publish interactive data tools on taxing, spending, and innovation in the region.

It’s important for our members to understand that our metro Milwaukee-based research portfolio is driven by the frequent occasions that governments in that region reach out to us for assistance in addressing vexing policy challenges. Those calls for assistance reflect our long track record of providing helpful research and analysis, and we are confident that government leaders from other parts of the state will similarly reach out to us for help as they become more familiar with our government-specific work (as is already the case when it comes to fire and EMS service sharing studies).

Within the next week or so, we’ll be sending out our annual member survey, which will provide all of you an opportunity to weigh in on whether we’re meeting our commitment to our former PPF and WisTax constituencies. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to fill it out, as we value the results and will use them to set our 2023 research agenda.

In the meantime, happy New Year and thank you for all of your support in 2022!