By Harvey Wasserman
The most hopeful, diverse, photogenic, energizing and often hilarious...
Last Wednesday Scott Walker gave his biennial budget address to a joint session of the Wisconsin State Legislature. Walker's office strategically released portions of the 2013-2015 plan over the previous two weeks, so the general scope and content of the budget did not come as a surprise on Wednesday night. However, the extreme ideological tone of the event breached the boundaries of credulity for any listener not completely indoctrinated by the free market spin.
The stage was set for the pandering to rightwing extremists by Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville), who was recently elected to one of the new Republican gerrymandered districts in the Fox Valley. Rep. Murphy opened the session with a prayer asking for God's blessings to rain down upon job creators, school privatizers and road builders, who had just been handed a victory in the state senate earlier in the day with a vote to guarantee their income in a constitutionally protected state highway fund.
"As a minister's assistant at my home congregation of Zion Lutheran Church in Appleton, I've been blessed to be able to share the word of the Lord, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, with others," Murphy announced. "Lord God thy Father, we pray to you in the name of your son, Jesus Christ who is our Savior, that even though we continue to sin every day and do not deserve your forgiveness, that through faith, we can still expect life with you in paradise," he prayed.
Murphy's litany of God's children commenced in the coded language of his partisans:
Blessed are the job creators and "traditional family values" pushers: "Lord, look after the people of Wisconsin, and help us to create the opportunity for good jobs for all of our citizens so that they can build strong families."
Blessed are the school voucher, charter school and standardized testing advocates: "Lord, help all Wisconsin students get a quality education and develop their skills to the fullest that will lead to a rewarding lifestyle."
Blessed are the road builders: "Lord, help us to build this great state into an example for our nation with safe roads, safe bridges and good infrastructure to give all the citizens the means they need to be successful."
Having formally bowed down to the GOP's major corporate interests in the name of God and state government, Rep. Murphy returned to his seat to join the rest of the chamber in applauding the entrance of the Governor.
Walker's speech opened with a tip of the hat to the military and national Republican strategists bent on clawing back some of the Latino vote after their low turnout for Romney last November. Major General Don Dunbar, head of the Wisconsin National Guard, frequently accompanies Walker on media tours of the state. On Wednesday, Walker singled him out in the audience along with Sgt. Luis Cortes-Avila of the 1157th Transportation Company from Oshkosh.
But Walker used the bulk of his speech to address out-of-state campaign donors and corporate executives. Using the coded language of rightwing ideologues where "middle class" refers to corporations and wealthy investors and tax cuts for the wealthy magically lead to economic recovery, he might as well have been speaking directly to Grover Norquist himself.
At the end of this short video excerpt from the speech which comes straight out of the Americans for Prosperity playbook, Walker says, "I want to cut taxes over and over and over again until we are leading the country in economic recovery." The comment received a standing ovation from the Republican side of the aisle and the public galleries packed with lobbyists and Yes Men and Women from his administration.
According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the lion's share of the $343 million in "middle class" income tax cuts accrue to people and families earning six figure salaries. The median income for Wisconsin families is just below $50,000 a year. And that $343 million is just over half of the $630 million in overall tax cuts.
While Walker characterized the budget surplus as having been created by, "the hardworking taxpayers of this state," in reality it was designed through catastrophic cuts to public education, Badger Care (Wisconsin's state Medicaid program), and the slashing of tax credits for the poor.
And while Walker suggested that the giveback would translate into a meaningful increase in consumer demand and therefore job creation and economic recovery, a family earning $80,000 would only see a $2/week benefit, while those earning $21,000 or less would receive a benefit of $2 per year. As Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) put it, "The Average Joe will only get enough back for a cup of joe."
A group of Badger Care advocates from Racine in southeast Wisconsin came to the Capitol earlier Wednesday afternoon to protest Walker's rejection of federal Medicaid dollars and his budget that would kick tens of thousands of people off the plan that already has a waiting list of over 150,000 people. They demonstrated in the rotunda with chants, signs and banners that were confiscated by the Capitol Police. See a short video here.
I spoke with one of the protesters, Earlene House from Racine, who was wearing a t-shirt that said, "I am number 25,168" indicating her place on the Badger Care waiting list. Earlene has been without health insurance since 2009 and recently underwent back surgery that was financed by donations to Racine's Health Care Network.
Earlene House from Racine. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
"If it weren't for rich people donating money to Health Care Network to get write-offs on their taxes, I don't know what I would do," said House who struggles to come up with the $170 every month for the seizure medications she needs.
As I was speaking with House on the first floor of the rotunda, I noticed the President of School Choice Wisconsin, Jim Bender, meeting with a group of well-dressed people on the ground floor and snapped this photo:
President of School Choice Wisconsin, Jim Bender, meeting with a group of well-dressed people. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
The school choice lobbying effort that has out-spent most other industries in Wisconsin over the past few years has paid off in this year's budget. School Choice Wisconsin is joined by the DeVos family (owners of Amway) lobbying group American Federation for Children and the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity in putting the screws to Wisconsin lawmakers to divert millions of dollars from the already anemic public education budget to private, mostly religious schools in the form of vouchers.
Walker hopes to link the voucher program to the state's new "school report card" data system and force districts with two or more "failing" schools to offer vouchers to families in that district. His proposal also removes the limit on the number of vouchers in Racine, a move that will devastate public schools in that city.
Indeed, Walker's budget goes in for the kill in the final stages of the Starve the Beast strategy that began under Reagan in the 1980s. After the union busting measures in Walker's last budget, this one seems designed to create a permanent underclass of unorganized people who are desperate for handouts from the wealthy, and for even the lowest of low-wage employment.
Walker greets conservative WI Supreme Court justices Pat Roggensack and David Prosser after the speech. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.