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BEST OF | 2012 >>
Scott Walker's dream budget
By Bob Treu
, Contributing Editor
During the heat of last year’s recall season, I met the late Dan Flaherty in the Public Library. He was still very much an active lawyer and he was waiting in line to copy a document. I was behind him, waiting to copy an article. Dan had been instrumental in making the Democratic Party more progressive in the 1940s and after, and his opposition to Scott Walker was deep and passionate, but when I asked him about the recall he glared at me with that special look he had developed to intimidate uncooperative judges. Then he stormed: “The idiots. What do they think they’re doing?” He was convinced the recall would fail and Walker would simply gain support.
A little more than a year after surviving a loud and angry recall effort, Gov. Walker is showing his opponents he feels no need to compromise or negotiate. He has a national reputation now as an extreme rightist and he is being seriously touted as a candidate for president in 2016. He also has a majority of Republican support in both the Senate and the Assembly. He can pretty much get what he wants, and it is clear that what he wants is that national reputation rather than any easing of the divisiveness that motivated 47 percent of Wisconsin voters to try to end his career early.
A recent example of this attitude is a bill that forces women to undergo an ultrasound procedure before getting an abortion, a piece of legislation that puts Wisconsin in the company of Texas and Louisiana. No matter how much Republicans talk about their love of freedom, that passion is pretty much restricted to large financial matters and does not extend to a woman’s right to refuse a medical procedure. And that was just for starters. A year after overcoming the recall challenge, the Gov and his fellow Republicans have offered a budget that shows no sign of compromising with the large minority of voters that oppose him.
So what do you if you are a state representative who feels Walker’s budget is so bad it requires a response? Faced with a vote that was repugnant to his conscience, Abe Lincoln famously jumped out of a window of the Illinois state house to avoid doing what he felt was wrong. Not the best solution perhaps. Besides, the Democrats tried the Lincoln Jump as a way of protesting the last budget. They took off for Illinois and hid out, which did slow things down, but ultimately Walker got what he wanted.
This time around the Assembly Democrats called for a vote on the budget without offering any of the 20 amendments they had prepared. That pushed the bill to the Senate where, presumably, amendments had a better chance of passing, since last fall’s election had pushed the Senate a little closer to parity, and it would take only two Republican defections to kill the Walker-sponsored budget. A few Republicans had already expressed their reluctance to support it because of its heavy-handed attack on public schools. A few people I spoke with that day were upset with the Assembly Democrats for caving in.
Then Thursday, the day after the Assembly vote, Assemblyman Steve Doyle was home, taking care of business in his La Crosse office, and was willing to talk with me for a half hour that afternoon. Friday was out, he explained, because if the Senate changed the budget bill in any way, it would go back to the Assembly, and he would have to be back in Madison. Calling for a quick vote on the budget was a conscious strategy, he explained. There were, apparently, some Republicans from swing districts who would like to be able to vote for a moderate amendment or two so they can avoid complete identification with a budget this toxic. Sending the bill to the Senate without amendments would force moderate Senators to amend the budget or possibly vote against it. Of course this tactic might not change much at all in the end, because the governor’s budget was likely to pass no matter what the Democrats did.
The governor has referred to the budget as “our budget,” by which he means his and his Republican colleagues’. There is little in it for Democrats to embrace. Doyle calls it “a horrible budget, for everyone but the ultra-wealthy.” For the Gov, it is a major advance over the accomplishments of his first two years. So, it is a perfect time to ask just what this governor has accomplished.
Balancing the budget does seem like an important success, but it is, in fact, a constitutional requirement. Since this isn’t always a realistic way to govern, the state has usually dealt with this problem with creating structural deficits, or by “kicking the can down the road.” While Walker’s last budget created a surplus, the new budget is no different from earlier budgets, in that it does contain a structural deficit. The same old can kicked down the same old road.
In fact, the question has never been whether or not we balance the budget, but rather how we do it. One way is to pay for services by raising taxes, using a structural deficit, or both. Another way, which conservatives favor, is to cut services. Walker’s budget offers income tax breaks mainly for the rich, while making severe cuts in most services. To be more specific: people with average income will save $43, while the top 1 percent will save $285. Not much of a return for so much damage.
One of the Gov’s persistent promises has been job creation and economic growth, and it is in this area where he has accomplished least. Under Walker’s leadership Wisconsin has fallen to 49th in economic growth and from 11th to 44th in job creation. The governor explains this poor performance by blaming the protestors. Supposedly business leaders are put off by noisy politics. And of course the Gov simply doesn’t consider how the income reductions suffered by state workers affect the economy.
Perhaps the Gov found some consolation in a report done by MPI, a group hired by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. WEDC, you may remember, was created by as part of Act 10, so it’s no surprise MPS finds the explanation for Wisconsin’s slowdown in the nature of its industries, which are supposedly old-fashioned. It also found Wisconsin’s workers to be poorly educated. While this may be true when one counts paper degrees, the report insults the thousands of highly skilled workers who toil in tool and die shops, or construct small engines, or make boats.
In the area of education, Walker has made real progress toward destroying what was once of the best public school systems in the nation, one which most of us were proud of, and replacing it with a private, largely corporate sponsored, one. He did serious harm in his first year by implementing Act 10, but the new Republican budget carries on the destruction at an even greater rate. The budget does increase spending on public schools by 1.4 percent, but it increases spending on private schools by 29 percent. It also raises the income cap on families receiving aid to send children to charter schools, while allowing schools to admit students from elsewhere in the state. And it deals with the persistent problem of charter schools failing to show any improvement over public ones by making it unnecessary for charter schools to release any records holding them accountable for their performance. The idea seems to be to strangle public schools slowly while replacing them with a new system of private ones. It was the prospect of explaining this to ordinary folks back home that has made even some Republican legislators question this budget.
In the area of health care the Gov has made an even better record. He has established himself as an outstanding rightist by removing nearly 90,000 people from BadgerCare and refusing to accept funding from the federal government. Obviously this decision has less to do with the health of Wisconsin citizens than with the Gov’s eagerness to prove his hard-right credentials by opposing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans argue their budget will free people from federally controlled health care and allow them to purchase programs in the private sector. Never mind that many of them won’t be able to afford the outrageously overpriced private plans. Never mind that many of them will then suffer illness without recourse to adequate medical care.
The new budget will also reduce government’s presence in our lives by offering up public assets for sale. The budget language actually limits these sales to “non-profit sharing” institutions. If you don’t know what that means, don’t feel bad. This writer doesn’t either, and even Representative Doyle finds the term mysterious. The one thing it means for sure is that very wealthy individuals who might want a university dorm or a state road can see the Gov for a hot deal. Never mind that these assets were paid for by the people of Wisconsin.
The Gov is also leading away us from the bad old progressive days when Wisconsin was dedicated to preserving natural resources and protecting our environment. In Walker’s Wisconsin mining companies can help themselves to whatever Wisconsin has without fear of serious regulation. In fact, mining company executives helped write the legislation.
Finally the Gov has accomplished a great deal in the area of voter rights and free speech. He showed his attitude toward this subject recently when he discovered his student appointee to the Board of University Regents had actually signed the recall petition. Before any of us had a chance to congratulate him on his interest in hearing opposing views, he had the young man kicked off the board. He has a similar attitude toward the right to vote. He and his party are trying to make voting more difficult for students, minorities and the elderly by requiring voter IDs.
As it turned out, Representative Doyle did not have to return to Madison on Friday. A few minutes after midnight that morning, the Senate passed the 2013-2015 budget by one vote. It contains no amendments by Democrats, and no Democrat voted for it. Sen. Dale Schultz, of Richland Center, was the only Republican to vote against it. He did so for the rather odd reason that the bill is not in the interest of the people he represents. But he voted against Act 10 as well, simply because he believes workers have a right to be represented by unions. It is no wonder a Republican from the assembly has already been picked to run against Schultz in his next primary. This is what the Gov meant when he referred to the budget as “our” budget, a bill arrived at by negotiation. The Democrats might as well have jumped out of the window.
So what next? Will this bill help him win re-election? His party lost two Senators to recalls, Tammy Baldwin won her U.S. Senate seat easily, and President Obama carried Wisconsin in his successful re-election bid. But you have to wonder if the Gov even cares about any of this. He has taken stands extreme enough so that even if he loses re-election, he will have a good base of far-right support and plenty of funding for a presidential bid. A more sobering thought is that the people of Wisconsin really don’t support public education, decent health care, or environmental protections that ensure our children’s future. If a clear majority of us no longer want those things, we can talk about our proud progressive heritage until we’re blue in our face and we still won’t have them.
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Rejected Best of La Crosse Categories
1. Electronic billboard
2. Middle school football team
3. Rail liquor selection
4. Parking ramp
5. Internet troll
6. Graffiti artist
7. Kwik Trip
1. Pete Best
2. Milwaukee's Best
3. "Best in Show"
4. Best Western
5. Best Coast
6. Best Buy
7. 'My Best Friend's Girl"
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