In a dramatic, late-night hearing on Tuesday, four outraged Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee confronted...
Across the country statewide political contests and ballot initiatives resulted in the defeat of extremist rightwing candidates and the victory of progressive social issues like same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. But even as the popular vote expresses slightly more progressive tendencies, the legacy of the 2010 Tea Party victory in state legislatures lives on through highly partisan redistricting.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Wisconsin, where solidly progressive Tammy Baldwin won out decisively over conservative darling Tommy Thompson for Senate on the one hand, and the majority of state senate and assembly races were won by Republicans on the other.
Computer programmer and concerned citizen Greg Gordon railed against the Republican redistricting plan in Wisconsin as "unethical, secret, racist." Indeed, part of the plan was deemed unconstitutional for violating the Voting Rights Act earlier this year, and there is an ongoing investigation into the secretive way in which the maps were drawn up. The organization State Integrity Investigation gave Wisconsin an F -- a score of 15% -- for integrity in the redistricting process.
Gordon analyzed election results in state senate races and this was his conclusion: "Based on the numbers reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, adding up all votes cast in the Wisconsin State Senate races shows that Democrats received 475,116 votes (50.5%), Republicans received 451,928 votes (48.1%), and others received 13,100 (1.4%), yet the Republicans gain seats and take the majority in the Senate."
That senate majority ends a short-lived reprieve from total domination of state government by Republicans due to the successful recall of three Republican state senators over the past sixteen months. Two seats were flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2011 when Jen Schilling defeated Dan Kapanke in western Wisconsin, and Jessica King won her race against Randy Hopper in the Fox Valley. John Lehman's win over Van Wanggaard in the June 2012 recall election put the Democrats in a one-seat majority.
Because the legislature has not been in session since March, senate Democrats have not been able to make headway in terms of crafting new laws. But they have taken advantage of committee leadership positions by moving forward on audits of troubled state economic development and health care programs, and investigations into state election systems.
Senate Republicans have kept a low profile over the summer, biding their time until they regain power come January. At the top of their agenda is a controversial mining bill drafted by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and lawyers for the Gogebic Taconite mining company that passed the assembly but failed in the senate earlier this year when Republican Dale Schultz voted against it. Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders have all said that bringing back AB 426 will be a top priority once the legislature is back in session.
Pro-business groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Competitive Wisconsin and Wood Communications are eager to push their agenda forward. WMC President Kurt Bauer published a press release on Wednesday saying, "WMC will be asking Walker and the Legislature to continue to pass pro-growth policies, including iron mining legislation, tax cuts, lawsuit reform, regulatory relief, and other changes."
According to Bauer's statement, their goal is "to get Wisconsin into the Top 10 pro-business states in the nation." What that means for specific legislative initiatives is unclear, but it could very well translate into Right-to-Work laws that effectively destroy private sector labor unions. As filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein showed so brilliantly in his documentary, "As Goes Janesville," the business lobby is incredibly powerful in Wisconsin and Right-to-Work is at the top of their to-do list.
Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), already Assembly Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Finance that oversees the state budget, will likely ascend to the Speaker of the Assembly position in the absence of Jeff Fitzgerald, who vacated his seat to run for U.S. Senate. Vos is the Wisconsin State Chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and has championed many ALEC-sponsored initiatives, including sweeping tax reform. Vos has been chairing a Legislative Council study committee on the subject this year in preparation for the introduction of legislation that would drastically cut income taxes for corporations and the wealthy.
The 2013-2015 biennial budget bill will be the single most important piece of legislation passed this coming year. The Republican stranglehold on state power practically ensures that austerity for the majority and subsidies for businesses will guide the process. Particulars will likely include the expansion of voucher and charter schools at the expense of public education, moves toward performance based funding of higher education, more cuts to health care programs, and direct subsidies in the form of grants, low-interest loans and tax credits and cuts for businesses.
That this ideologically driven agenda does not meet the needs of the majority of people in the state and is being challenged on more and more legal fronts does not seem to be of concern to Republican leaders in Wisconsin. They are bound and determined to exert their power for their own advantage while they still have it. As WMC's Kurt Bauer stated, "This is a rare opportunity, and we need to capitalize on it."
But like Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, Todd Aiken, Glenn Beck, and many other rightwing extremists found out this past Tuesday, history has a way of catching up to you when you're on the wrong side of it. It may take a little longer in places where the electoral game has been structurally rigged for the next eight years, but it will eventually happen. Scott Walker and company would do well to realize this sooner rather than later.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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