When Scott Walker ran for governor in 2010, he had a message for voters about the size of the government he wanted to run: smaller, he said, was better.
The message resonated with many Republican voters who were frustrated with government. It was a time when conservatives attacked government at Tea Party rallies, like one in Madison where a man dressed up as Thomas Jefferson and told the crowd that they were slaves.
“This government is claiming to be all powerful, and you are its slaves,” he proclaimed. “Are you ready to give up liberty like this?”
Even Walker, who's normally reserved, was piling on in speeches – like one at the Republican Party's state convention, in which he declared, “We're gonna take all those big government liberals and load 'em up on a train and run 'em right out of town!”
The smaller government pledge clearly worked for Walker in 2010. The question four years later is, did government actually get smaller?
Ernie Pearson of Baraboo says he likes the idea of smaller government, and broadly speaking, he thinks the governor achieved it.
“I’ve worked in the private sector my whole life and, you know, to be competitive, you have to run fairly lean. And I think that our government needs to operate in the same way.”
Jeff Bybee of Middleton is unimpressed. He thinks the term “smaller government” is completely relative.
“That’s not measurable and so again, you’re back to a rhetorical argument that’s just basically trying to evoke an emotional response,” he said. “Yeah, we need smaller government – everybody can relate to that, whatever the heck that means.”
People who research the budget for a living say the same thing.
“Frankly I don’t know how you measure it,” said Jon Peacock, the director of the Budget Project at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. “That’s a totally subjective statement.”
He said one possible way to measure government is to look at the budgets Walker has introduced and compare them to overall personal income in Wisconsin: “And by that measure, we are spending a little bit less than we were a few years ago,” he said.
Todd Berry with the Wisconsin Taxpayer's Alliance says it's not really the state that's gotten smaller: “It’s probably fair to say that local government has been more on hold in terms of size than state government,” he said.
In school districts, for example, revenue limits signed by Walker forced schools to reduce property taxes a couple years ago; they allowed a modest increase this year. Ken Bates, the superintendent for the Green Lake School District, said his school has felt it.
“We’ve reduced administrative staff, we've reduced clerical staff, we've reduced custodial staff,” he said. “We're getting smaller. But how small do you get before you don't exist?”
There are a lot of factors that go into budgets like Green Lake's, some of which have little to do with who's governor – one reason why measuring Walker's “small government” promise is tough.
However, when only looking at factors Walker can control and not adjusting for inflation, it appears that government is actually growing. The number of general fund state employee positions has inched up under Walker, and the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau says actual spending in the general fund is projected to be about 9.6 percent higher at the end of this fiscal year than it was in former Gov. Jim Doyle's last budget.
Below is a chart from data provided by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, showing actual spending in the general fund. The 2010-11 expenditures, in blue, were the last to come from a Doyle budget. The 2013-14 and 2014-15 expenditures, in orange, represent projected expenditures.
Editor's Note: This report was the second of a three-part series on "Walker's Promises: By the Numbers."