Apr 1 2011

In Madison, a Numbers Game

The Wisconsin story, we were often told, comes down to numbers: a giant multi-billion dollar budget deficit and a Republican governor trying to fix it. But does it add up?

Careful readers may have been confused by much of the reporting on the scale of the problem in Wisconsin. The current deficit was $30 million, though a “far greater shortfall of $1.5 billion is expected next year,” according to the Washington Post (2/19/11). The two-year projected deficit was even larger: $3.6 billion. But as Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy told CounterSpin (2/25/11-3/3/11), those figures, which came from Gov. Scott Walker’s office, represented funding requests from various state agencies—wish lists that were never likely to be granted unaltered.

Yet media coverage stressed that Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining was purely a fiscal move. It was “a key piece of his budget-cutting strategy” (Washington Post, 2/19/11), or “essential to help balance the budget” (New York Times, 2/19/11). On NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams announced (2/17/11) that “the state is broke,” so the governor “is proposing drastic cuts he says will save billions of dollars.” NBC reporter Kerry Sanders chimed in: “Walker says he will cut up to $3.6 billion from the budget, in large part by eliminating unions’ collective bargaining powers to negotiate wages and benefits.”

But would these cuts really reduce a “large part” of Wisconsin’s supposed $3 billion budget deficit? Not really—according to some estimates from Walker’s office, the health/pension cuts might save $300 million (USA Today, 2/23/11).

Some coverage suggested that anti-Walker protests really opposed fiscal responsibility, as when NBC reporter John Yang (2/18/11) claimed demonstrators were “denouncing Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to attack a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.”

On ABC World News (2/17/11), Chris Bury explained that protesters were “raging at the governor’s plan to rein in a $3.6 billion budget deficit.”

Of course, the problem wasn’t that Walker was fixing the deficit. As many were pointing out, Wisconsin had faced a larger projected deficit in 2009 without resorting to such drastic measures (PRWatch.org, 2/22/11). If anything, the protests were trying to argue that Walker’s plan wasn’t really about deficit-cutting at all—an argument made all the clearer with the late-night March 9 Republican ramming through of a bill containing only the non-fiscal changes Walker was pushing, like the attack on collective bargaining.