It will come as no surprise that our annual top five list is dominated by research on the momentous events of 2020, including findings about the pandemic-produced shift to online purchasing, its devastating impacts on Wisconsin’s arts and culture sector, and municipal police spending trends. Also making this year’s list are far-reaching education findings: one on the state’s teacher workforce diversity and another on concerning trends in state support for public higher education.
While 2020 is a year that most people want to forget, it is also one that will generate important analysis by policy researchers for years to come. Critical insights have been revealed about the strengths and weaknesses of our government structures and safety nets in a time of crisis and these must be identified, analyzed, and addressed.
The Wisconsin Policy Forum has already begun such reflection. Soon after the pandemic turned the world upside down in March, we pivoted to a research agenda that probed its impacts on state and local governments and school districts and the way it affected key economic sectors and policy areas that demanded attention from policymakers.
Continuing a year-end tradition launched by the former Public Policy Forum more than a decade ago, we now announce our top five research findings for 2020.
As in previous years, selecting this year’s list was not easy. We produced 58 reports, policy briefs, and datatools on a broad range of topics, and we think each contained important findings and insights. Nevertheless, after much deliberation, we have narrowed our list of top findings to five based on their relevance to important policy challenges and their potential impact on policymaking in the years ahead. We describe them below in chronological order:
- Shift to online shopping helps taxpayers but not state budget. With thousands of Wisconsinites doing much of their shopping online as the pandemic raged, our June report, The Online Effect, explored how the shift was affecting state sales tax collections. We found that the $22.4 million in collections from online purchases in April 2020 exceeded those of the same month in 2019 by 133%, while collections from other segments like restaurants (-53%) and clothing stores (-73%) dropped substantially. For state government, this created a particular challenge given a unique provision in Wisconsin state law that requires any increase in sales tax collections attributed to purchases from certain online and out-of-state retailers to be used to lower state income taxes by a corresponding amount, as opposed to being retained by the state. We suggested this provision may merit new scrutiny given the state’s budget challenges and the unanticipated breadth of the shift to online commerce. As we predicted, a subsequent state report found the upcoming income tax cut for tax year 2020 will amount to $256 million – up from $77 million in the previous year.
- Wisconsin’s police spending has increased as a share of municipal spending. In the wake of emerging calls to “defund” police, A High-Level Look at Police Funding Trends in Wisconsin, also released in June, explored police spending trends in Wisconsin. We found that municipalities spent $1.28 billion on police in 2018. That equated to $219 per capita, an increase of 197% in raw dollars from the $74 spent per capita in 1986 and a 30% increase when accounting for inflation. Meanwhile, law enforcement spending as a share of total municipal spending grew from 17.8% to 20.0% during that period. The report also noted that despite the increased spending, police staffing levels in most of Wisconsin’s largest cities have lagged population growth over the past decade. Overall, we suggested that fiscal realities – as opposed to views on policing – would be the biggest driver in the debate over police defunding given law enforcement’s large share of local government spending and the intensifying financial challenges facing Wisconsin’s cities and villages.
- Wisconsin’s gap between teachers and students of color is growing. A Teacher Who Looks Like Me, the first installment released in June of our two-part series on teacher workforce diversity, explored how the demographics of Wisconsin’s teacher workforce compared to those of its public K-12 students. We found that from 2009 to 2019, while the share of students of color in the state’s public schools grew from 23.6% to 30.7%, the share of teachers of color increased by only 1.1 percentage points to 5.6%. A large body of research has shown that a teacher workforce that closely mirrors the racial makeup of the student population can help bridge racial achievement gaps in academic performance and other student outcomes. That finding is particularly relevant to Wisconsin, where such gaps are among the highest in the nation. The second installment in the series will explore policy options to address these concerning trends and will be released in January.
- Wisconsin allocates fewer state dollars to arts and culture than any other state. In August we released Arts and Culture in a Pandemic, a report that sized up the pandemic’s impacts on Wisconsin’s arts and culture sector, which contributed just over $10 billion to the state’s economy in 2017. We assessed the situation as an “existential threat” after reviewing the consequences for 13 arts organizations supported by Milwaukee’s United Performing Arts Fund, which included a collective $2.5 million in financial losses and 554 staff lay-offs or furloughs. We also found that Wisconsin’s 13 cents per capita of state funding support for arts and culture ranked last in the nation, and that several other states had taken steps to provide emergency relief support to their arts and culture sectors. In the months following the release of our report, Gov. Tony Evers announced three rounds of emergency relief funding for Wisconsin’s arts and cultural organizations totaling $45 million.
- Wisconsin’s support for public higher education has plummeted when compared to the rest of the nation. Our December report, Falling Behind?, assessed the state of public higher education in Wisconsin by examining financial, enrollment, and R&D trends as well as Wisconsin’s higher education governance structure. We found that since 2000, Wisconsin’s per-student revenues from taxes and tuition at its public universities and technical colleges has fallen from 10% above the U.S. average to 9.2% below that average ($13,640 here versus $15,018 for the U.S.). We also found that the UW System had fallen from the state’s second-largest area of state General Purpose Revenue spending in 1992 to fifth-highest today. The report concluded by laying out the range of policy options available to address the state’s higher education challenges, including a relaxation of tuition freezes or new state funding, additional administrative flexibility for UW-Madison and other UW system members, and efforts to boost enrollment.
Our desire to limit our list of top findings to five required us to omit several important ones, including findings related to the capacity of Wisconsin’s municipal and county governments, school districts, and state government to withstand the impacts of the pandemic; the continued success of K-12 school referenda statewide; and the severe impacts the pandemic has wrought on child care providers in Wisconsin.
We also had to leave out several important findings relevant to specific communities in Wisconsin, including increased numbers of auto fatalities involving African Americans in Milwaukee; the effectiveness of city of Milwaukee affordable housing efforts; how the continued evolution of the Foxconn project is impacting the finances of the village of Mount Pleasant; and promising EMS and fire department shared services opportunities in Jefferson and La Crosse counties. Those interested in reviewing these and other research findings can access the Forum’s full portfolio of research publications on our research page.
We’re proud of our research output and grateful for your support during this chaotic year. We are already hard at work on several important research projects for 2021 with a specific emphasis on issues raised by the pandemic, and we’ll be highlighting those projects in our upcoming fourth-quarter newsletter. Happy holidays and we hope to see you in person next year!