Gov. Walker’s Budget Battering Ram

Wisconsin Governor seeks to crush unions, empower corporations and privatize schools before voters can recall him

By Roger Bybee

Wisconsin’s increasingly unpopular Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies are intent on transforming Wisconsin — with its deeply-rooted progressive traditions — into a Southern-style corporate fiefdom where all public policy is premised on maximizing private profit.

They are using the state budget as a battering ram to shatter deeply imbued Wisconsin traditions of respect for worker rights, strong public schools, compassionate health and social services, localized decision-making, and skepticism about large concentrations of corporate power.

Despite Walker’s approval rating of just 43% in Public Policy Polling’s May survey, the Republicans are moving “at warp-speed,” as the New York Times put it, to institutionalize a set of profoundly regressive changes for our state designed and supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, the Heritage Foundation and the billionaire Koch brothers, who backed Walker’s 2010 campaign with $43,000 in direct donations and $1.3 million in contributions to the Republican Governors’ Association, much of it flowing back to Wisconsin.

In part, Republicans are rushing to maximize the budget’s use as a vehicle for their pet right-wing projects because they feel seriously threatened by recall elections being held this summer against six Republican senators who supported Walker’s infamous law all but outlawing public-sector unions. (In fact, full eradication of public unions was Walker’s original plan, but relatively moderate Republican senators told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that they convinced Walker to slightly soften the bill.) At this point, Walker is trying to soothe the waters by declaring,  “The public wants to move on.”

But Republican legislators, anxious about the recalls, are now claiming that Wisconsin’s unusually powerful recall provision is a barrier to conducting the state’s urgent business (like granting quick approval for a major mine project with alarming environmental hazards) and should be weakened. In the short run, with big majorities in both houses, the Republicans were in a position to ram through the budget despite fierce Democratic opposition, the warnings of impending disaster from local public officials of both parties, and public resistance shown by a new round of mass demonstrations and the construction of a “Walkerville” encampment designed to remind the public of the Depression-era Hoovervilles. The Walker budget, as it unfolds, will create a Wisconsin unrecognizable to most of its citizens.

Corporate Tax Paradise

Over 60% of Wisconsin corporations with revenues over $100 million pay no state income taxes. If Wisconsin firms were taxed at the national average, the state would gain $1.1 billion annually in revenue. In April, the respected accounting firm of Ernst & Young calculated that Wisconsin is the 4th least expensive state in which to start a new business.

However, Walker is promoting a larger transfer of wealth to larger corporations, their CEOs, and large investors. The budget contains at least $260 million in new corporate tax cuts at the same time that he is draining funds from public education. That figure will grow substantially, as some of the cuts have modest impact in the near future but will grow quite a bit in the coming years. The income tax for manufacturers and agriculture corporations will be almost entirely phased out over the next six years, dropping from A phase-out of almost the entire corporate income tax for manufacturers and agricultural corporations — by 2017 the corporate tax rate on these kinds of firms would have dropped from 7.9% to 0.4% (tax data courtesy of Jack Norman, research director, Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.)

Wisconsin’s tax code covering multi-state corporations will be weakened, enhancing their ability to shield profits from Wisconsin taxes. The gorging of corporations and investors’ hunger for tax cuts and subsidies — despite record profits and a record 24% of income flowing to just the richest 1% — comes at the expense of public schools and other services long valued by a bipartisan majority in Wisconsin.

Starving Public Education

Walker plans to cut $800 million from K-12 educational programs in a public school system that has been regarded as among the best in the nation. This loss of revenue will translate into many more children per teacher, vast cuts in programs like art, music, and phys ed, and layoffs of thousands of teachers and other educational personnel. Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Robert Peterson’s unique bilingual elementary school, which he has helped to build up over 30 years, stands to lose a full third of its professional staff, he said.

At the same time he is imposing cuts in education from above, Walker’s budget restricts the ability of local school districts to raise taxes in order to compensate for the loss of state aid. This encroachment on localized decision-making and exclusion of the public from even token consultation is a consistent theme throughout the budget.

Under the influence of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, the nation’s largest right-wing funder, Milwaukee has been “ground zero” for experiments in “school choice” over the past two decades. The publicly-funded program has provided poor children with vouchers to attend new private schools, which have typically been either parochial schools or “storefront operations,” in the words of Milwaukee school board member Larry Miller, that generally lack in education standards, accountability, responsibility to accept special-needs students. (who make up 19.5% of Milwaukee’s public schools, but just 1.6% of the “choice” schools). When the “choice” schools in Milwaukee were finally required to take the same standardized test as in the Milwaukee Public Schools last year, the choice students fared substantially worse than the public-school students.

But despite these results, Walker is planning on expanding “school choice” eligibility to include all Milwaukee students with family incomes up to roughly $70,000, and to include parochial schools throughout Milwaukee County. Walker’s budget also de-regulates the choice schools, removing requirements on educational credentials for teachers and administrators, and even eliminating background checks for staff working directly with children.

Noting the unwavering support that Walker has received from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, AFL-CIO legislative aide Joanne Ricca wondered aloud, “What ever happened to enlightened business leaders who were concerned about public education and a quality workforce?”

Apart from these vast shifts in public resources, Walker’s budget contains other extraordinary measures inserted by Republicans in a radical departure from the bipartisan consensus typical of past legislative sessions.

Walker’s budget plan also eliminates the need for public hearings on cutbacks in Medicaid (over which he has already asserted an extraordinary measure of direct control). This shut-off of public debate on important policy changes is utterly alien to Wisconsin traditions of open government. Moreover, the scope of suffering due to the lack of medical care — particularly in distressed industrial cities and poor rural areas — is already immense, but Walker has thus far shown little regard to this.

Humiliation for the Jobless

Another provision implies that the jobless are drug users who must be monitored closely so that they do not lose their motivation to seek work. This provision would mandate drug tests for recipients of unemployment insurance. This requirement, which Republicans have been pushing in Florida and several other states, may prove to be illegal under federal law. But more basically, “Unemployment compensation is something that people pay into when they’re working, that’s not a gift from the state.” Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Council, points out. “If you are unemployed, you earned those benefits and you shouldn’t have to prove anything to anyone.” Another provision would make laid-off workers wait a week before becoming eligible for unemployment benefits.

While Wisconsin’s overall unemployment rate, at 7.4%, is below the national average, its factory towns are plagued by extensive long-term unemployment due to plant closings, off-shoring of jobs and layoffs in Wisconsin by profitable employers. Racine has 13.4% jobless in the city, while the rates for Milwaukee (10.6%), Kenosha (10.3%), Beloit (13.0%), and Wausau (10.7%) are also extremely high.

Family Planning Fight

Despite the Republicans’ rhetorical emphasis on jobs, they have stocked the budget with items that please the Religious Right. The Republican budget would slash funding for family planning and about $1 million for Planned Parenthood. New restrictions to family planning and health programs, pro-choice advocates suspect, will result in the desired cutoff of all federal family-planning funds for Wisconsin.

The budget, then, is consistent with Walker’s other steps to close the democratic space in Wisconsin’s political life. After a long battle featuring a virtual siege of the Capitol by thousands of protesters for six weeks in February and March, Walker won passage of a law eradicating all meaningful rights to union representation. The compliant Supreme Court majority (including a justice just barely re-elected thanks to thousands votes belatedly “discovered” by a highly partisan Republican county clerk) was willing to overlook Republican legislators’ violations of the Wisconsin Open Meeting law and recently approved the legislation (which still faces other court challenges).

State Senate President Scott Fitzgerald openly admitted on Fox TV the Republicans’ political motives in seeking to weaken labor unions: “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.” Wisconsin is generally seen as a state vital to Obama’s reelection in 2012 and where he won by 14% in 2008.

Second, to restrict voting among groups seen as likely opponents of his policies, Walker and the Republicans passed the most exclusionary voter ID law in the nation, according to Wisconsin Common Cause. “Voter ID is a part of a concerted Republican effort to restrict the vote of those who do not share their vision for a Wisconsin controlled by the corporate special interests, which financed the takeover of state government,” Scot Ross, of One Wisconsin Now, an online progressive organizing group, told The American Prospect. “First you take away workers’ rights, then you change the laws so hat it’s hard for them to vote you out of office.”

“It’s clear when you look at the national picture that the Wisconsin bill is part of a nationwide push to erect barriers to civic participation for people who already have barriers,” agrees state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys (D). “Voter ID goes along in perfect congruence with the attack on unions. It’s another policy priority that has nothing to do with jobs and everything to do with destroying the organizations and weakening the voices of the middle class and the poor.

National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spotlighted the groups who would be most likely excluded from participation in the political process, since they don’t have state-issued photo IDs that will be needed to cast a ballot under the new law: 23% of elderly Wisconsinites, 59% of Latina women, 55% of African American men overall and 78% of African American men who are 18 to 24 years old. But not a single case of voter impersonation — the specific variety of voter fraud allegedly targeted by the Republicans — has been documented in numerous investigations. 

Walker appears intent on adopting the government model prevalent in the South, under which, as Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor put it, “the focus is on creating a competitive place to locate businesses, so the premium is on investments in benefits for corporations and on keeping wages relatively low. Worker rights, social services, even education take a back seat to ‘job creators’ under this model — which critics denounce as a race to the bottom.”

But Walker and crew are assured of a difficult course ahead. First, the six Republican state senators face daunting recall elections Aug. 9. Second, Walker himself is increasingly like to be forced into a recall election in 2013, with polling numbers suggesting little support outside the hard core of Republican rightists.

Most recently, the conservatives’ hold on Wisconsin became much less secure when Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, the deciding vote in the recent Supreme Court decision approving Walker’s anti-union bill despite procedural violations by Republican legislators, was accused by fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley of choking her during an argument over the decision. While Prosser contends that he is innocent, the Center for Investigative Journalism, which uncovered the story, interviewed several sources agreeing with Bradley’s version that Prosser placed his hands on her throat.

The Wisconsin Judiciary Commission and the Dane County Sheriff’s Department are investigating the allegation. Assaulting a Supreme Court justice is a felony, and an adverse finding could end Prosser’s career on the court and eliminate a solid 4-3 rightist majority.

(As a former legislator and justice, Prosser developed a reputation among Capitol insiders for displays of temperamental and aggressive behavior, including a late 1994 incident in which Prosser, screaming at the top of his lungs, thrust his face into the author’s, as if trying to provoke a physical confrontation.)

But whatever the outcome of the Prosser case, the crucial choice before Wisconsin citizens is whether we will passively watch our state — in which we have taken deep pride for its wonderful public institutions and resources like our clean rivers and beautiful parks — into a far less democratic and almost-unrecognizable place where government is dedicated only to the slavish service of large corporations and our very richest citizens.

If we remain silent, the corporate chokehold on our cherished traditions of democracy, open government, and strong public institutions will only grow more crushing.

Roger Bybee is a publicity consultant in Milwaukee. Email winterbybee@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2011


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