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Donald Trump says Scott Walker’s Wisconsin has a deficit—is he right? AP

Sparks flew early in Wednesday’s Republican Presidential debate, as Donald Trump repeatedly accused Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker of running a deficit in his state, a charge that Walker repeatedly denied. Trump triumphantly claimed that his “telling the truth” in Iowa had caused Governor Walker’s poll numbers to drop in the state.

There’s a lot to be unpackaged here.

First of all, Wisconsin state law requires a balanced budget, and it appears that Trump is referring to old projections, not numbers. FactCheck.org notes:

In November, Wisconsin’s Department of Administration, based on revenue projections and state agency budget requests for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, said the state faced a shortfall of $2.2 billion for that two-year cycle (see table 4)… But to Trump’s claim, the important thing to know is that agency spending requests aren’t automatically granted, as the administration noted in its November projections.

The situation, though, is a bit murkier than simple “deficit” or “surplus.” Recent official reports do, in fact, show a net shortfall of just over $2 billion, even after considering a $65 million reserve the state is required to maintain, but this number is based on projections more than hard numbers. Watchdog.org explains:

As they do every two years, the state’s agencies submit budget requests.

While Walker asked for fiscally conservative budget requests, the agencies came in with higher budget requests than existing spending plans — some much higher.

And that’s what created much of the shortfall — the number between the revenue projected to be coming in and the combined money the state departments would like to spend.

As one legislative aide put it Monday, departments always ask for more than they are going to get, like Chicago Bears legendary running back Walter Payton used to extend the football as far as he could when tackled. Payton knew officiating crew wasn’t going to give him another yard, but sometimes he’d get enough for a first down.

In other words, much of the projected shortfall comes from numbers that agencies are requesting and are unlikely to get. That said, critics counter that Walker, who inherited a nearly $4 billion deficit, is also banking on the legislature going along with his proposed cuts and plans, which they say is equally unlikely.

At the end of the day, perhaps both Walker and Trump were right – and wrong – in the scuffle. Perhaps more than anything else, the exchange served to highlight the complexities and difficult questions inherent in budgeting at any level of government, and the crucial task facing fiscal conservatives to cut through the noise and find real solutions, not just squabbling.

Rebekah Bydlak is the Executive Director for the Coalition to Reduce Spending. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of her employer. Follow her on Twitter @rebekahbydlak
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