If we are to err as Americans on any side in our critique of other countries, it should be in the direction of being...
If budgets reflect values, then Governor Scott Walker's proposed 2013-2015 budget is proof that Wisconsin has regressed back to the days of the robber barons and the paternalistic values of the Victorian era in which they accumulated their wealth.
Merriam-Webster defines robber baron as, "an American capitalist of the latter part of the 19th century who became wealthy through exploitation (as of natural resources, governmental influence, or low wage scales)."
In Walker's Wisconsin, all three of these conditions exist for capitalists, or as Walker likes to call them, job creators. They have gained so much influence in government through unlimited campaign contributions -- a record-breaking $58.7 million in support of Walker during the 2012 recall -- that in just two years they've been able to reverse decades of environmental and labor protections, roll back fair housing laws and equal pay protections for women, slash medical assistance, and they are well on the way toward turning public schools, colleges and universities into private training institutions according to their own needs.
The budget proposal is chock full of handouts to wealthy corporate supporters like road builders, school privatizers, financial institutions, realtors and manufacturers, while at the same time it slashes social safety net programs and attaches "performance" strings to income support programs and modest increases in public education allocations.
Workers and consumers who generate most of the state's revenue have little idea that more and more of their contributions to the common good are, in fact, funding private gain. Even money spent on social safety net programs like Badger Care, Food Share and income support manages to benefit private companies that contract with the state to administer parts of the programs.
Social theorist and CUNY Professor David Harvey calls it "accumulation by dispossession," a neoliberal strategy in which the state commodifies the commons and then raids them -- state treasuries, land, water, public goods and services, etc. Then, like Robin Hood in reverse, the state redistributes the monetized, marketable wealth to rich and powerful individuals and corporations through tax credits, business deals and cold hard cash in the form of business development grants and loans.
In order to justify such blatant expropriation and the massive amount human suffering left in its wake, the Victorian concepts of the worthy and unworthy poor are brought back into public policy. In Wisconsin, it's not enough to show that you're unemployed, ill or disabled in order to gain access to income, food and health care support systems. You have to prove your worthiness by offering your labor at a cut rate to local employers or by spending your time training for a job completely outside of your profession that you have no interest in doing.
While criminalization of the poor has never gone away, the penalties are getting more severe under Walker's regime. His Waste, Fraud and Abuse Elimination Task Force has focused almost exclusively on public assistance programs, even though most of the waste fraud and abuse in state government comes from shady dealings with big business contractors. Soon public assistance recipients will have to submit to drug testing and lose benefits if they test positive, and face up to 10 years in prison and $25,000 in fines if they're found trading food stamps for cash under the provisions of two new bills this session.
Walker's opening budget gambit was so extreme that it has been met with criticism from all sides. A few Republicans in the state senate who uphold at least a façade of caring for their constituent communities, like Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), want to scale back both the terms of and the amount of money allocated to school voucher programs, and the conservative Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has concerns about the nearly $1 billion in borrowing to boost the transportation fund.
John Peacock, Director of the non-partisan Wisconsin Budget Project calls a proposal to sell off state-owned power plants and massively increase bonding for transportation, "a slight of hand that takes many years of debt service costs incurred by the Transportation Fund and trades them for an indefinite period of General Fund liability for energy costs."
Over the past week a select group of eighteen state agencies appeared before the Joint Committee on Finance to discuss the effects of budget proposal on their Departments. Apart from Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and the Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction Tony Evers who hold constitutional offices and are the elected administrative heads of their agencies and therefore not beholden to the Walker administration, all other agency heads thanked Walker for the budget.
That praise came in the form of now-familiar obsequious platitudes about streamlining regulation, protecting taxpayers, creating jobs, and being open for business. Never mind that taxpayers are being fleeced and Wisconsin's job growth rate is 44th in the nation: The Walker-appointed department secretaries know how to stick to the script and not let facts or reality get in the way.
In his testimony, Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch had the temerity to mention Walker's promise of creating 250,000 jobs his first term in office. Over halfway in, the number of jobs created is somewhere around 44,000 or about 18% of the way to the goal.
Mike Huebsch testifying at Joint Finance Committee budget hearings. Photo by Rebecca Kemble.
Late last year Walker earned a "pants-on-fire" rating from PolitiFact for saying he had created "just under 100,000 jobs" since he came into office. Huebsch could have earned the same honor for his remark to the Joint Finance Committee relating to the 250,000 jobs promise. Heaping empty political rhetoric on top of the broken promise, Huebsch said, "This is a promise (Walker) hasn't backed down from because for him this is not a political goal; it is about changing the lives of our citizens."
The prize for Wisconsin's most Orwellian agency goes to the once-great Department of Natural Resources. It might as well be the Ministry of Truth itself. Once known as among the best environmental protection and stewardship agencies in the nation, under the direction of Secretary Cathy Stepp, a homebuilder and politician, the DNR's role in protecting natural resources has been turned inside out. Now the name of the game is streamlining regulations to make it easier for companies -- a.k.a. polluters -- to do business.
In Walker's first year in office he turned the DNR into an "enterprise agency" with "increased operating flexibility to enable the agency to improve customer service and business support." This shifted staff and resources away from monitoring, oversight and compliance with environmental regulations and created the Office of Business Support and Sustainability at a time when two major threats to clean air and water were ramping up: Frac sand mining and massive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) with thousands of head of livestock.
DNR officials admit that due to a large number of early retirements when Walker took office, they do not have enough staff to oversee the sand mines or CAFOs. New wetlands and navigable water laws that involve setting up "wetland mitigation banks" whereby developers (like Secretary Stepp, who likes to remind people that she's a business owner and a hunter) can fill in wetlands in one part of the state provided they "create" another one somewhere else pull staff away from the DNR's core mission of protecting the state's resources.
Stepp's budget request includes the addition of two full time "small business environmental assistants" whose sole purpose is to help "job creators" navigate environmental permitting processes "in a protected and confidential manner detached from the permit review staff." Until such time as Walker and Co. can completely trash all environmental protections, the least they can do for business is to provide them with state-sponsored coaching on how to game the system.
The most alarming aspect of DNR's budget request is what it does not include: staff allocations for iron mining permitting and oversight. The mining deregulation bill that was passed earlier this month has eased the way for an enormous mountain top removal project on the shores of Lake Superior in a water-rich environment. Groundwater modeling, rock characterization and other aspects of the permitting process for such a large project are extremely complicated, yet there is absolutely no budget for DNR staff to carry out these tasks should a permit application be submitted.
The only people to stand up to the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee and criticize Walker's budget proposal were DPI Superintendent Tony Evers and Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Justice Abrahamson decried the hit the Wisconsin Court System was taking with a $17 million cut, "the largest budget reduction in the history of the court system." She warned that such a cut was debilitating and would likely impair the courts' ability to meet constitutional and statutory obligations for equal treatment and timely trials.
DPI Superintendent Evers, who is facing an extreme rightwing challenger in the upcoming April 2 election, did not hide his outrage at the multiple ways in which Walker proposes to privatize and undermine public k-12 education in the budget. "The budget as proposed creates too many winners and losers, with the 870,000 children in our public education system drawing the short straw," Evers told the committee.
From creating a state-wide charter school authorizing board outside of the control of local school districts to freezing levy limits on local taxing authorities while increasing funding for private, mostly religious voucher schools and expanding the program to new cities, Evers lambasted the proposal and urged the committee to "stop the continued defunding of public education."
Evers called a proposal for vouchers for students with special needs, "a dangerous experiment with our most vulnerable students" and urged the committee to remove it from the budget. He also advised against using the newly created school report card system as the basis for awarding $64 million in competitive incentive grants. "Instead of providing all schools with sustainable resources to achieve the new standards and expectations that we have set for college and career readiness, the budget as it is currently written would provide fleeting bonuses to some schools while leaving too many others on the sidelines," he quipped.
But Evers shouldn't be surprised that the report card system he helped to create and the turn to a more business-friendly orientation in the schools are now being used as the excuse to pull the rug out from under school districts that still cling to some last vestiges of self-governance. Critics have been warning Evers about the futility of cooperating with Walker's plans and urged him to take a bold stand in defense of a once-great public education system.
In his State of Education address two years ago, Evers told teachers to begin the slow process of rebuilding trust with the Walker administration after their unions had been battered into near oblivion by Act 10. That seemed a strange message given the gross imbalance in the power dynamic. I wondered whether Evers was being given behind closed doors assurances that things would return to some state of "normalcy" after the court cases challenging Act 10 were settled, or whether he truly did believe he could be an effective advocate for public schools by collaborating.
But with the 2013-2015 budget Evers is hitting the wall of reality that teachers smashed into two years ago: a recalcitrant, extreme ideological program driven by a Governor who understands his role in the scheme of things as protecting the interests of his business supporters at the direct cost to the people of the state.
Tony Evers might not yet fully comprehend how far back in time we have travelled, nor that his requests to the Joint Finance Committee for increased funding have the ring of Oliver Twist asking politely for more gruel. Gilded Age, here we come!
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.