Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tuition reciprocity, special counsel, and other odd costs

One of the odd items I like looking at in the state’s Annual Fiscal Report is at the end of the main document, which has a list of all of the uncapped expenses for the year.

Better known as “Sum-Sufficient” appropriations, it budgets a certain amount for each item, but it could be above or below that amount depending on how things work out. Overall, the $4.3 billion in sum sufficient appropriations had actual expenses fall short of that figure by a little more than 1%, helping the state’s bottom line by $45.7 million.

This was split up with $12.15 million in above-budget spending, and $57.9 million in lower spending in other places, and it was interesting to note that a sizable amount of that net increase happened in higher education tuition and assistance.

Amount of higher-than-budgeted costs, FY 2016-17
Minn-Wis student reciprocity $3.24 million
Wisconsin grants for UW System students $242,000
Academic Excellence Higher Education Scholarship $55,000
Wisconsin Covenant $8,000

That’s over $3.5 million that had to be sent over to help pay for financial aid. Obviously, not big in the overall condition of a $16 billion budget, but it’s odd to me that the Joint Finance Committee only added $2 million to the 2017-18 amount for Wisconsin-Minnesota reciprocity, and am keeping it flat the following year.

I suppose they’re figuring that some of the increase was a one-year fluke (it was related to the big funding cut to the UW in 2016-17 and UW’s “reduced costs” as a result), but it also counts on an increased amount of Wisconsinites heading across the border to Minnesota and paying higher tuition, which means that we taxpayers do not have to make up as much of a difference to the students Minnesota “lose” to Wisconsin. We’ll see if that gamble pays off, or if we end up paying more this year in reciprocity as well.

This increase in Wisconsin grants was largely because the UW System and Higher Education Aids Board (HEAB) had to deal with eligibility requirements that had not kept up with increases in costs, leading to a financial aid waitlist. By allowing more students to qualify for the grants, more expenses were needed last year. In response, Wisconsin grants got a nice boost in the last budget, nearing the $60.97 million that was paid out in 2017 for this year, and then adding another $3.55 million for them in 2018-19.

On the other side, it’s interesting to see who some of the biggest lapses were in the sum-sufficients for 2017, as millions were sent back to the state treasury because projected job incentives fell short.

Sum-sufficient lapses, FY 2017
Enterprise Zone Tax Credits $8.50 million
Business Development Credit $5.635 million
Jobs tax Credit $5.425 million

That’s $19.6 million that could have been budgeted/used for some other purpose if the estimates were closer to accuracy. And it’s 1 year after the Jobs Credit fell short by $4.27 million (the Business Development Credit didn’t exist, and the Enterprise Zone was only off by $1.27 million).

Interestingly, the Joint Finance Committee increased the amount of Jobs Credits from $16 million to $20 million for this year, before declining to $13 million in 2018-19, after getting information from WEDC that more credits would be granted this year due to past activity. Also noteworthy is that Governor Walker wanted to expand the amount of state Enterprise Zones in the 2017-19, but was shot down by Joint Finance.

And here are a couple of other items in the sum-sufficients that seem worthy to point out.

1. “Special counsel” for the State Department of Administration was over $1.03 million in FY 2017, overshooting its budget by $419,000. There’s no further explanation of what that Special Counsel was used for (gerrymandering case?), and why the State Department of Justice couldn’t handle those cases

2. $3.24 million was set aside for “Disaster Damage Aids” in FY 2017, but $0 was used. It’s not like we didn’t have floods and other natural disasters messing up roads, and a look at the Transportation Fund part for Disaster aids shows $1.86 million of those funds being spent last year. This might not be a big deal, except that the 2015-17 budget only set aside $1 million in DOT funds to pay for disasters, meaning that the Walker Administration chose to “bank” that $3.24 million in General Fund money, and make the Transportation Fund eat $860,000.

Those types of moves are worthy for at least a little discussion why these choices are being made, and perhaps if there needs to be better policies that match the needs that are out there. And that’s why sometimes the fine print of the Annual Fiscal Report presents some intriguing information that can be a bigger story than the toplines and overall figures would indicate.

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