Capitol rain for WSJ edit

Rain falls in 2010 on the state Capitol in Madison. The state's rainy day fund finally has some real money in it. State leaders should continue to build up a cushion for tough times.

State Journal archives

The history of Wisconsin's rainy day fund is telling.

It also highlights the significance of this week's announcement by the Walker administration that the fund holds well over $100 million.

Wisconsin's "budget stabilization fund" was created in 1986, following the early 1980s recession. State leaders back then had hiked taxes and limited spending to get through tight times, which wasn't popular.

So they wisely sought to build up a financial cushion over time. That way, if the economy faltered again, state government would have something to fall back on.

Lots of states created similar rainy day funds in the 1980s. But unlike other states, Wisconsin's fund sat empty. This was true under Republican and Democratic governors.

In fact, the only deposits to the state's emergency fund for years — a measly $35 — came from a handful of state budget officials. They symbolically donated some cash out of their own pockets to draw attention to the issue.

Fast forward to 2007, when new rules required a portion of unexpected revenue to go into the state's budget stabilization fund. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration deposited $55.6 million that fall.

Yet the very next summer, the money was withdrawn to deal with yet another budget shortfall.

So much for building up a significant balance over time.

Now comes Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Say what you will about his many controversial moves — including restrictions on public sector unions — but Walker just made his second deposit to the state's rainy day fund in a row.

Last year, $14.8 million was contributed to the fund, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. And on Monday, the administration announced an additional $108.7 million.

That brings the current rainy day fund balance to $125.4 million, including income from interest and some property sales.

This is progress. And it needs to continue so Wisconsin stands on firm financial ground, rather than suffering one fiscal calamity after another.

Walker's record on fiscal responsibility isn't perfect. But this week's contribution to the long-empty rainy day fund deserves praise.