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On Wednesday, Scott Walker's "Talk With Walker" tour stopped in Madison at Virent, a biofuels and chemical company. The tour that kicked off just after Thanksgiving is a slick marketing campaign to push Walker's budget ideas and to shift his image as an anti-labor, rightwing ideologue to one of a more moderate politician willing to work on bipartisan, common sense solutions to public problems.
Only employees of the host company and specially invited guests that include elected representatives from the area are allowed entry, in addition to the credentialed press. Indeed, the entire tour seems designed to get as many news stories as possible run in local print, television and radio to reinforce Walker's five talking points: Job creation, workforce development, transforming education, government reform, and infrastructure development.
Walker can afford to spend so much time on the road with this dog-and-pony show because he has the people and communities of Wisconsin right where he wants them: Desperate for resources and willing to take any scrap that falls from the table of corporate indulgence so lavishly laid out during his first two years in office.
After destroying public sector unions, hamstringing local units of governments and school districts by reducing state aids and placing limits on how much revenue they can generate through tax increases, deregulating and understaffing state environmental and financial oversight agencies, and slashing funding for public education using the ruse of a budget crisis brought on by large corporate tax cuts enacted at the beginning of his reign, Walker now wraps himself in the mantle of victory, bringing the good news of a modest budget surplus to businesses across the state.
Walker wants to hear from businesses about what they need from the state in order to grow jobs and develop their workforce as the next biennial budget is being prepared. Watch this short video of Walker explaining why he is choosing this method for input on the budget. Apparently, open and transparent public hearings are drawn-out, chaotic events dominated by "special interests" that bus in people to testify.
But in Walker's Wisconsin, hand-picked corporate audiences in tightly controlled settings don't count as special interests. They are the taken-for-granted cultural backdrop and driving force for all of his policy decisions.
With plans in place for shifting training costs of private corporations on to state taxpayers through workforce development and higher education reform initiatives, and with the power of the teachers' unions greatly diminished, Walker can now talk about increasing funding for education. Schools and colleges are so strapped for resources that they'll take anything they get, even if that funding comes with strings attached.
Walker answered a question about where the increased funding for technical colleges would go this way: "We want to help employers identify what their needs are, and then try and help our technical colleges identify where they need to put resources to keep up with the demand for those jobs."
As for the University of Wisconsin System, Walker said he wants any increased funding to go toward economic development initiatives. "The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and UW System jointly funded a vice chancellor position taking R&D ideas into the marketplace that ultimately produce profits. In order to solve problems you've got to get it into the marketplace."
He went on to discuss faculty retention in a climate of austerity. "We're looking at block grant funding instead of breaking it down into wages, procurement, etc." He continued, "So hypothetically, if they knew they had a set amount of money, instead of doing across the board salary increases for all staff, they could put a higher premium on professors who bring in high levels of research money."
As for public k-12 schools, Walker is going on the theory of "nothing succeeds like success." In this video he attempts to explain how performance-based funding would work in tandem with the new school and district report cards.
Although the sum total of Walker's policies amount to a hollowing out of public institutions and a massive, radical redistribution of wealth from those Wisconsinites who work enough to pay taxes -- but who are not connected or powerful enough to avoid them -- to private businesses whose interests lie in earning greater profits, he is trying to pass himself off as a moderate yet bold politician who is willing to work with both parties to come up with common sense policies.
Walker is also distancing himself from hot-button issues like a potential Right to Work law, elimination of same-day voter registration, and further restrictions on women's access to reproductive healthcare services and abortion. His reason? "Anything that takes away or distracts me from the five priorities I've been elected to promote, I will not support," said Walker.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.
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