“Training analysts for the Fiscal Bureau and other state agencies is an important part of the La Follette School’s mission,” says school director Susan Yackee. “Our alumni play a key role in important state institutions, and none more important than the LFB.”
As a nonpartisan service agency of the Wisconsin Legislature, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau provides policy, program and fiscal information and analyses to the Legislature, its Joint Committee on Finance and individual legislators.
The three May grads are among the many analysts Bob Lang has hired since he became LFB director in 1977. “Fifteen members of the bureau’s current staff of 30 hold master’s degrees from graduate schools of public policy,” Lang says. “Of those 15, 12 are graduates of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School.”
Most of those 12 La Follette alumni joined the bureau in the last nine years. “Our recent hires from La Follette seem to be well-equipped with the skills necessary to be productive members of our staff and to help maintain LFB’s strong reputation,” says 1987 alum Al Runde, who joined the LFB in 1994 after working as an analyst with the Department of Navy and what is now the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
LFB analysts provide information by writing in-depth summaries of the governor’s biennial budget proposals, says Rachel Janke, who joined the LFB as an analyst after completing her Master of Public Affairs degree at La Follette in 2012. “We split the budget bill into the subject areas each of us cover. It takes about four weeks, depending on the budget, to go through the bill and summarize it.”
They augment those summaries with information from the executive budget book from the governor’s office and from information in the state accounting system, which lets the analysts further break down the funding in the bill, Janke says.
Those summaries go to legislators and are available online for the public. “The budget summary becomes a living document that we update at each point in the legislative process,” says Janke, whose specialties are the state Department of Administration, unclaimed property, the Wisconsin Lottery and the Government Accountability Board. “Legislators and their staff will call to ask about the smallest details, which I appreciate because we have spent hours thinking about those details.”
Keeping the budget process transparent is a large part of how the Legislative Fiscal Bureau maintains its impartiality, Janke says. “Our task is to assist legislators in making informed decisions and to help the general public know about and understand the decisions they make.”
“LFB’s non-partisan, or impartial, analysis is an important part of the legislative process because it is fact-based and informational, which allows it to cut through a lot of the internal and external noise related to proposed legislation, or associated with an existing program or statute,” Runde says. “Quality, impartial analysis brings with it a certain degree of credibility with the Legislature, agency staff, the press and other external constituencies.”
When the budget is not in season, Janke and her colleagues update informational papers relating to major program and budgetary issues in state government that answer public policy questions that arise frequently. For example, she prepares a publication outlining how revenue from the state lottery contributes to property tax relief.
With all these tasks, Janke says, her La Follette School training is valuable, especially its emphasis on real-world clients and case studies, not just theory. “Our course in program evaluation and the workshop in public affairs gave me experience dealing with data quality issues,” she says. “From courses on policymaking and budgeting, I gained knowledge about the differences between the public and private sectors in terms of decision-making and budgeting.”
The statistical training is also fundamental. “Understanding regression analysis is essential to evaluating policy,” Janke says. “When I am reviewing research that aims to determine causal relationships, one of the first things I look for is whether the research controlled for key variables, such as age or location. Then I look to see if the data include an experimental element, a randomly assigned ’treatment’ of some sort, with a control group for comparison. If not, we really have to consider the study’s limitations — and we can’t always say with certainty that a particular policy would lead to a specific outcome.”
Janke adds that the small size of the La Follette School program means the students have excellent access to world-class faculty who challenge them with exercises like researching and writing memos within 48 hours. “Sometimes I have more than 48 hours to get back to a legislator or their staff,” Janke says. “Sometimes I have less, so I appreciate the training we received in how time constraints shape our work and force us to be concise.”
This high-quality training is critical for the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Lang says, adding that the bureau and the school have enjoyed a relationship that has benefited both organizations since 1983, when the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs was founded, thanks to funding the Legislature gave the University to revamp the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration.
“La Follette graduates have been, and continue to be, a vital part of the Fiscal Bureau and its work for the Legislature and state government,” Lang says. “The training that the La Follette program offers, both in terms of academic coursework and practical experience, provides the groundwork for success in the analysis of fiscal and policy issues. La Follette graduates have succeeded with the bureau because of that training and the skills, work ethic, and maturity that they bring to the workplace.”