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Why Do Self-Styled Fiscal Conservatives Sign So Many Blank Checks?

Wisconsin’s legislature is run by drunken sailors.

The Republicans who currently control both the state senate and assembly market themselves as stingy with a buck. They insist they are all about fiscal responsibility and budgetary discipline. Their party’s actions don’t match those claims.

At the federal level, Republicans have been far from the deficit hawks they profess to be. A fondness for cutting taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals coupled with a lack of spending restraint regularly makes deficits balloon during Republican administrations.

The federal deficit doubled on Ronald Reagan’s watch. It was less than $79 billion at the beginning of Reagan’s presidency and more than $152 billion at the end of it. The deficit nearly doubled again with Republican George H.W. Bush in the White House, mushrooming to more than $290 billion the year before he left office. Spending exceeded revenues by $255 billion in the final year of his term. Democrat Bill Clinton managed to eliminate the deficit and by the time his presidency ended there was a $128 billion budget surplus.

Republican George W. Bush started his presidency with that surplus, but there was an ocean of red ink by the time he left office in 2009—a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion. Democrat Barack Obama cut the deficit by more than half during his eight years as president, leaving office with the annual deficit whittled down to $585 billion. His successor, Republican Donald Trump, departed after four years with federal spending outpacing revenues by $3.3 trillion, a deficit more than five times larger than it was when he first took office.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which allows federal budget deficits or surpluses, Wisconsin’s constitution requires state budgets to be balanced. Fiscal recklessness takes a different form at the state level. It’s the number of blank checks that get written.

In budget-speak they are called “sum sufficient appropriations.” Unlike “sum certain appropriations,” which are fixed, sum sufficient ones are estimates of what will be spent but are not binding. Whatever the cost ends up being, the bills get paid. The check is effectively signed when the budget is passed, the amount gets filled in later.

There are 200 sum sufficient appropriations in the state budget. A few sprinkled throughout the budget are for repayment of state debt. Other blank checks written in the budget are for the cost of operating the legislature, the governor’s office and the courts. That’s right, the legislature doesn’t make itself stick to a budget like any household has to. Then there are the so-called “entitlement” programs. Their cost varies depending on how many people qualify for public assistance. Republicans disparage entitlements, but then authorize dozens of sum sufficient appropriations for them when they craft the state budget.

Among their favorite entitlements are private school vouchers. It’s a well-kept secret that there is a sum sufficient budget appropriation to use public funds to subsidize private schooling. Wisconsin’s voucher program has been around for 30 years and has never boosted student achievement the way supporters promised it would. Students using vouchers to attend private schools do no better than their peers in public schools, and by some measures actually do worse.

But those in charge of the state senate and assembly quietly keep signing blank checks for more vouchers. No matter how many of these subsidies are handed out, sufficient funding is guaranteed even if what Wisconsin taxpayers get for their money is neither sufficient nor guaranteed.

Mike McCabe


April 8, 2021