Once every year, the public gets a peek at the state's hidden budget deficit.
And this year's glimpse - for the first time in nearly a decade - shows an improving bottom line.
That's encouraging and praiseworthy, though more progress is needed.
The state is required by law to balance its budget. And officially, it does.
But there's a big catch to that equation. The state uses cash accounting, which allows for lots of wiggle room. Cash accounting is like balancing your checkbook without factoring in what you owe on your credit card.
In sharp contrast, most businesses use generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), which are more transparent, accurate and responsible. All spending and revenue during a budget period is accounted for. You can't play games, such as pushing big payments into the future and pretending they don't exist.
The state requires local governments to abide by GAAP to protect local taxpayers and basic services. Yet the state doesn't require the same strict standards for itself.
Rep. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, a certified public accountant, wisely wants the state to consistently follow GAAP rules. So far, the Legislature has refused.
Yet every December, the state auditor prepares state financial statements using GAAP, and those numbers affect the state's bond rating and interest payments on debt.
The latest figures show the state's hidden budget deficit - which had more than doubled over the last decade to $3 billion - has now fallen to $2.2 billion over the last fiscal year.
"In essence, we have paid off $800 million of the credit card balance that had been charged to taxpayers in prior administrations and legislatures," Marklein said. "This is a remarkable improvement in our state's financial position."
Dale Knapp of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance agreed it's a good sign. The state has paid off some obligations, increased savings and enjoyed higher-than-expected revenue. Yet the state still plays games with the timing of aid payments, for example.
The state should do as it says and move to GAAP accounting for all of its budget calculations.