Paul Ryan Puts Wisconsin Face on Rightwing Agenda
When the news that Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan would be tapped by Mitt Romney as his running mate hit social networks last night, activists in the state fell just short of rejoicing. Much delight was taken in the prospect of Ryan losing not one, but two races in November since he will still be allowed to remain in the race against Rob Zerban for his seat in Congress.
There were jokes about $350 bottles of wine, and remembrances of last year’s Labor Day parade in Janesville, where Ryan refused to answer his unemployed constituents’ questions about jobs and handed out candy instead.
But after all the Eddie Munster comments played out and the, “Did you build that yourself?” questions rhetorically posed, the sobering reality of Ryan’s ascendancy to power and what that could mean for the country began to set in.
Someone commented that the rest of the country will now be exposed to the rightwing Wisconsin cabal. But I don’t think that’s quite right. After closely monitoring state policy for the past year and a half, it would be more accurate to say that the international cabal of military, finance and resource extraction industries has found it useful to put a Wisconsin face on their agenda.
Paul Ryan is but one example. He has never championed the interests of Wisconsin in Congress. He has pursued his own political interests by means of doing the bidding of his hedge fund and insurance industry backers in his role on the Ways and Means Committee – the group that oversees and writes tax policy - and through his Chairmanship of the House Budget Committee. His Path to Prosperity Plan alternative budget involves extreme cuts to social safety net programs that would plunge the most vulnerable people into deeper misery while reducing the tax obligations of the wealthy. This plan did not originate in Wisconsin.
Ryan is a leader in the National Republican Congressional Committee, having co-founded the Young Guns program designed to attract and recruit Republican candidates to run for open seats and to challenge Democratic incumbents.
Although he voted for the $87 billion bailout for General Motors, Ryan was unable to stop them from closing down their Janesville, WI plant and laying off or re-locating 2,700 workers.
Scott Walker is another example. In his 2012 recall election, about sixty percent of Walker’s campaign contributions came from out of state donors. He also spent a huge amount of time traveling to out of state fundraisers for his campaign. Walker has been given awards by such national rightwing organizations as the Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity and has made high profile speeches for the Chicago-based global warming denying Heartland Institute that invested over half a million dollars of dark money into his recall campaign for a dirty PR campaign called “Operation Angry Badger.” He is scheduled to give the keynote address at the Republican National Convention this year.
So it’s not that the rest of the country will now have greater exposure to our corrupt Wisconsin politicians with the ascendancy of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate. Rather, it’s that the finance, military and natural resource extraction industries and their rightwing political front groups find something appealing about using Wisconsin politicians as their spokespeople. This regressive social, political and economic agenda championed by Ryan and Walker is not being developed by forces within Wisconsin, though we have become its proving ground.
Nowhere was that more evident than at a Joint Committee on Finance meeting held yesterday at the Capitol. Since the Democratic Party took control of the state senate after the recall elections in June, the committee’s makeup has been altered. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) is now the senate co-chair along with Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), who is also the Wisconsin state chair of ALEC, the corporate-driven legislation mill.
The committee met to vote on state agency requests for disbursal of already allocated funds. Most of the requests were perfunctory and passed on unanimous votes. The final request came from Paul Jadin, CEO of the newly-created Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, for $25 million in corporate tax credits passed as one of Walker’s first orders of business when he first came to office in January, 2011.
The WEDC was recently criticized for making a “soft offer” of a tax credit deal to a company called Skyward, contingent upon the company’s success in winning a $15 million state contract to build a statewide student information system for all 424 school districts in the state. Although Jadin claims that offer was legal, Walker said that there were communication breakdowns between his office and WEDC and didn’t like the appearance of rigged bidding. In June Walker re-shuffled a couple of the top administrators of the agency, replacing the deputy with his own policy director.
In yesterday’s meeting, Sen. Luther Olsen (R- Ripon) asked Jadin about how WEDC awards tax credits. Jadin explained the mandate of the program that includes credits for jobs created, credits for jobs retained, and credits for building a new corporate headquarters in the state. Olsen continued to ask him leading questions about the “highly competitive environment” in which states hoping to woo corporations to remain in or relocate find themselves.
Jadin commented that the tax credits given out by WEDC are just a small part of a larger package of incentives available in Walker’s Wisconsin. “What has been most beneficial for Wisconsin is that we’re able to talk to our companies about specific incentives we’re able to provide, and we’re able to deal with the macro-climate thanks to the manufacturing and agricultural measures passed last spring,” said Jadin.
Those measures are production tax credits whereby manufacturers and agribusiness producers earn tax credits based on their “production.” Credits can also be used to shelter the personal investment income of company owners. Jack Norman of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future calls them a “total giveaway to the wealthy,” that, according to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, will cost the average working family between $235 and $300 a year to support.
From Jadin’s point of view, all of these tax credits are relatively small pieces in the overall “Open for Business” pie cooked up by Walker and his legislative allies: “What you’re all doing here about tort reform, health insurance, workforce issues, collective bargaining, has a far greater impact than what we’re able to do at WEDC.”
Sen. Olsen continued to draw Jadin out on the topic of using tax credits to help Wisconsin businesses maximize profits. “Can you speak to helping companies win government contracts, like Oshkosh Trucks. By helping them you can make their bid more attractive. It may not attract jobs but it may help them retain jobs.”
Jadin seemed happy to explain the process that he was so roundly criticized for in the Skyward case. He said, “It’s not just in federal procurement, but private companies too. With Marinette Marine and Oshkosh Corporation, the state was able to provide assurance of assistance and that led to more successful bid opportunity.” That is, companies bidding on contracts – in the case of both of these companies military contracts – are given documentation from the WEDC stating that they will be granted a certain amount of tax credits as part of their bid proposal.
Only two members of the committee broke through the subtext of the conversation that was based on the assumption that what’s good for corporate bottom lines is good for everyone, and that supporting corporate profit-making is the correct use of state resources.
Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said, “I always struggle with the choices about jobs tax breaks vs. other investments we could make. When we think about future allocations, I want to put that in the context of the entire budget.” Turning directly to Jadin he said, “Your agency doesn’t exist in a vacuum in terms of the state budget. We all agree that you could use this, but are there better uses of this money?”
Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) mentioned the need for accountability and transparency in how the credits are awarded and monitored. He noted that there were other ways to stimulate economic growth other than direct tax credits. Increasing support for Technical College programs and expanding those that are in high demand, for example.
“There are employers throughout this state who have help wanted signs outside their door and they don’t have qualified welders. There is a long list of Wisconsinites who want to go into these programs, and they are turned away because there is a limit of capacity.” Jauch went on, “Everyone who graduated with a welding degree from WITC Superior got a job. Most of them took jobs in North Dakota in the oil fields, because they get paid a lot more there than in the jobs being offered in Wisconsin.”
But that’s as far as the pushing back went. Nobody seemed concerned about how they were going to pay for the tax credits in a race to the bottom economy where wages are so low that tax revenues decline. Nobody brought up the recent case of Plexus, a multi-national electronics manufacturer with factories in China, Malaysia, Mexico, Scotland and Romania that makes electronic and wireless components for the aerospace and defense industry. They were offered $15 million in tax credits to build a new facility in Neenah, and a month later laid off 116 workers at a different location, despite increasing profitability and shareholder earnings.
The company employs about 2,000 people in the Fox Cities area. Ginger Jones, senior vice president and chief financial officer put the plight of the 116 people, many of whom have families to support, in these terms: “Though always unfortunate, it’s really a small percentage of our overall headcount in the Fox Cities.”
Is this really the kind of “economic development” we want? We need to start having these conversations in our neighborhoods and local communities. If we are going to fight back in any meaningful way against the predations of the military and energy companies who would turn Wisconsin into a labor and natural resource colony, we’ve got to do it critically, and on our own terms.
We’ve got to challenge the language that is used by politicians and spin doctors in public discussion about shared resources and community-building. Engaging those who would exploit our families, our communities and our natural environment for profit at any cost on their terms is a profoundly disheartening exercise, and one that only adds to our collective disempowerment.
Paul Ryan or no Paul Ryan, we musn’t let the drama of political campaigns and personalities distract us from understanding what is really going on here, and then doing something about it.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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