Lower spending on the UW System is a direct, intended result of Truth In Sentencing.
The truth about Truth In Sentencing
When opportunistic politicians on both sides of the aisle sold us Truth In Sentencing in the go-go 1990s, none of them told us it would be an even-up swap for higher education. But a glance at state budget trends since the mid-1980s shows us that this is exactly what has happened.
The hardships now facing the University of Wisconsin System are well known. The current state budget includes a record $250 million funding cut for the state’s universities. Times are tough. In a bizarre turnabout, students have been asked to subsidize taxpayers to bail the state out of its deficit. The Legislature and Thompson/McCallum administrations played a political shell game with the budget for 16 years and Jim Doyle has kept right on playing.
Conservatives from both parties have used the same strategy throughout the nation: Cut taxes while promising to protect popular government programs and services. When massive budget deficits inevitably appear, look surprised and “grudgingly” cut the services you promised to protect. If possible (as it was in Wisconsin), give tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy so the middle-class tax rate is still too high to restore services.
As a UW-Madison student, I absorbed a $700 tuition hike plus fee increases this year. Meanwhile, my department, the School of Music, was unable to fill several vacant positions this year due to budget cuts. My diploma inevitably absorbs the brunt of the impact not taken by my bank account. Both have been hemorrhaging these days.
The current budget crisis is just the latest hardship for the universities. The arts programs at UW-Madison took their first cuts almost a decade ago in much happier fiscal times. Where has the money been going?
A simple analysis of the state’s budget over the last 18 years provides a startling answer to this question. The state budget from 1985 to 2000 remained relatively constant as a function of gross state product. The state was taking about the same amount of total individual and corporate income every year, but changing the way it was redistributed. State agencies were fighting for a piece of the same-sized budget pie.
The UW System falls under the “operations” portion of the state budget. This too remained constant at about 23 percent of the total budget. Sharing this budget category with the UW System are the Department of Corrections and all other state agencies.
In 1985, aid to the UW System made up 12.4 percent of the total budget. Corrections accounted for 3.2 percent, and roughly 7.3 percent went to all other agencies. By 2002, the slice shared by all other agencies had fallen a little to 6.9 percent, but the university took a precipitous drop to 8.7 percent. At the same time, an astronomical 7.3 percent, or $819.3 million, was eaten up by Corrections.
“Truth in Sentencing” was the buzz phrase in state Capitols throughout the nation while this shift was taking place. The crime rate was falling, but legislators figured they could score some poll points off of the public’s fear of crime.
Wisconsin was no exception, and in the course of a decade Wisconsin’s prison population nearly tripled from 7,241 in 1990 to almost 21,000 inmates in 2000. This is the equivalent of putting the city of DePere behind bars.
The cost to the state for this political posturing is astronomical. These laws may not have been so popular if the legislators making them had included their multi-billion-dollar price tag. Fortunately, a solution for this problem was found. Taxpayers did not pay for the increase in prison spending, students did. The 3.7 percent of the state budget that went from the UW to Corrections by 2002 amounted to almost $420 million.
For this legislative ruse, all Wisconsinites will pay a heavy price. The state receives an annual return of almost 1,000 percent on its investment in the University of Wisconsin. Every dollar spent on the universities means $10 pumped into the economy. Money spent on prisons—apart from generating a few hundred jobs in communities that would be better served by more targeted economic assistance and planning—is money thrown away.
The $700 extra I paid in tuition this year is nothing compared to the billions of dollars the state’s economy is losing as our educational infrastructure falls further and further behind.
December 9, 2003
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Peter Gruett lives in Madison and is a former FightingBob.com intern who maintains the Sodom on the Lakes Web log.