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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is surrounded by supporters March 12, 2011, as he signs Act 10 at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is surrounded by supporters March 12, 2011, as he signs Act 10 at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is surrounded by supporters March 12, 2011, as he signs Act 10 at the Wisconsin State Capitol. (Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

By Hope Karnopp December 13, 2023

If Your Time is short

  • Lawmaker was referring to a report from the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank.

  • Their estimates track fairly closely with prior reports and fact-checks. 

  • Newer research on the total taxpayer savings associated with Act 10 was harder to come by.

With a new liberal majority on the state Supreme Court, public employee unions in Wisconsin launched a lawsuit last month seeking to overturn Act 10. 

The landmark law, passed in 2011, curtailed union bargaining power and cut take-home pay for workers, as they had to contribute more to their retirement and health insurance. 

Republicans immediately responded that getting rid of the Gov. Scott Walker-era law would harm taxpayers and school districts.

That included Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc, who made this post Nov. 30 on X (formerly Twitter):

"Act 10 saved YOU $16.8 billion as taxpayers since 2011. At the same time, Wisconsin can boast a fully funded public pension for our hardworking public sector employees," she said.

PolitiFact Wisconsin reached out to Dittrich’s office asking for the source of that $16.8 billion figure. In response, we got a three-word answer: "It was leadership."

That presumably meant Republican legislative leaders shared the number with their caucus. Her office didn’t respond to a follow-up email seeking documentation or which leader had the information.

Scores of recent research has looked at other impacts of Act 10, including stagnant teacher salaries and drops in union membership.

But it was harder to find up-to-date numbers on the taxpayer savings that resulted from public employees paying more for their retirement and health care. 

It appears that Dittrich was referring to a March 2023 report from the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank.

Since other studies have led to varying results, depending on the methods used, we decided to set aside the Truth-O-Meter today and dig deeper into the question.

Here’s what found.

MacIver numbers generally line up with previous fact-checks

MacIver’s figures, which have been updated in the years since Act 10, topped $16.8 billion in 2023. 

Those calculations include how much less state government, local governments, schools and university systems are paying into pensions and health care.

PolitiFact Wisconsin previously checked Walker’s claim that Act 10 has "saved the taxpayers some $3 billion." We rated that quote, from the summer of 2014, Mostly True.

At that point, we had numbers showing about $2.35 billion in savings associated with retirement, and about $682 million from health insurance savings — though that incomplete number leaves out municipalities. 

So, Walker’s estimate was on target, based on our previous fact-check. It also tracks pretty closely to MacIver’s numbers from those years, which were $2.5 billion in 2013 and $3.9 billion in 2014.

There’s something else worth noting from our previous PolitiFact: The costs didn’t simply disappear. Rather, they were transferred from other taxpayers to public employees, who also pay taxes and now pay a higher share of their retirement and health care.

Recent report showed billions in pension savings

When PolitiFact Wisconsin reached out to state offices and other researchers, it was difficult to find studies from the past few years to compare with MacIver’s number.

One of the more recent reports comes from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, which took a look at pensions in March 2020. The group found that state and local government costs reduced by $5.2 billion between 2011 and 2017 by "having employees pick up a greater share of those pension contributions."

Seeing as pensions are the bulk of the savings, and MacIver found a $5.24 billion total by 2016, its number also seems to be in the ballpark.

Other reports are from farther into the past, but offer some additional information. That includes studies from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, before it merged to become another research group. They found school districts reduced benefit costs by $451.5 million in 2012, the first year after Act 10 was signed.

About $250 million of that was because of employees paying half of the retirement contribution, and the other $200 was from health insurance. Again, that’s only for school districts, so it’s hard to draw conclusions about taxpayer savings for other pieces of the equation.

Dittrich’s claim appears to fall in line with previous reports of taxpayer savings

After unions challenged Act 10 in court, Republicans responded that the law has saved taxpayers billions. That included Dittrich, who referenced a MacIver Institute report that put the total at $16.8 billion. 

It was difficult to find fresh research, but previous reports fall in line with the conservative group’s findings that Act 10 resulted in multibillion-dollar savings for taxpayers. 

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Our Sources

X,  Wisconsin state Rep. Barbara Dittrich, R-Oconomowoc Nov. 30, 2023

MacIver Institute, Act 10 savings total $16.8 billion since 2012, March 15, 2023

Wisconsin Policy Forum, Wisconsin’s Teacher Pay Predicament, November 2022

Wisconsin Policy Forum, State Drop in Unions Among Nation’s Largest, February 2022

MacIver Institute, UPDATE: Act 10 Savings up to $2.7 Billion, Oct. 24, 2013

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Scott Walker says union reform law that brought massive protests has saved taxpayers $3 billion, August 20, 2014

Wisconsin Policy Forum, Bridging the pension gap, March 2020

MacIver Institute, Act 10 at 8: It’s still working, Feb. 14, 2019

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Hope Karnopp

Has Act 10 saved Wisconsin taxpayers $16.8 billion? Here’s what we could find