By State Representative Chris Taylor
I’m at my third American Exchange Legislative Council (ALEC)...
Wis. Gov. Scott Walker gave his State of the State address Tuesday night, and he laid it on thick.
Walker acknowledged the slow pace of job creation, blaming it on “protests and recalls combined with the slow recovery at the national level, the fiscal cliff, and ongoing worries about health care mandates coming out of Washington.” Stunningly, he followed that up with this statement: “In Wisconsin, we don’t make excuses. We get results.”
Wisconsinites have become inured to that kind of head-spinning, bald-faced assertion -- based on nothing even resembling the reality we live in -- issuing forth from Walker and his administration. Intoxicated with the hubris of power, theirs is rhetoric of convenience and make-believe.
“By any measure, the past two years have been a disaster in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) in a statement after the speech last night. He added, “No amount of delusional rhetoric, press releases, or self-selected surveys can change the reality facing Wisconsin’s working families.”
That reality includes catastrophic cuts to public schools, higher education and public health programs, declining wages, job losses, and the destruction of public sector unions. Another part of the disaster can be chalked up to Walker’s economic policies that reward “job creators” with taxpayer handouts without holding them accountable for results, or even for paying back taxpayer-funded loans.
The most chilling moment of the State of the State event actually occurred before the speech as the members of the state supreme court were introduced. One member received an extended standing ovation complete with whistles and shouts of “Hooray!” from the Republican side of the floor and the public galleries packed with Walker’s family and lobbyist friends.
The rousing salute was for Justice David Prosser, the former Republican assembly member who put his hands around the throat of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley a year and a half ago in a dispute about when to publicly release the dissenting opinion in the “above the law” decision rubber-stamping the anti-labor law.
An ethics violation probe into the incident recommended by the state’s Judicial Commission against Prosser has been delayed by lack of quorum, since he and the three other conservative judges have recused themselves from serving on the panel. Wisconsin Judicial Commission Chairman John Dawson, who recommended the probe, was dropped from the commission when his term expired in August of last year.
In a pathetic attempt at pandering to working people, Walker invited hard hat-wearing members of the infamously conservative and union-busting International Operating Engineers union to join him on the podium as he talked about the bill and the need for jobs in northern Wisconsin.
As he pointed to the Wisconsin flag being held up by two of the men Walker said, “On the right side of the seal is the image of a miner. In the upper right corner are the tools of a miner. And on the top of the seal is a badger, which comes from the nickname given to early settlers who were miners. If any state can move forward with a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining, shouldn't it be the Badger State?”
This “flag is destiny” argument for obliterating the Penokee Hills does not take into consideration that the jobs will be temporary, the internationally recognized and protected Kakogan Sloughs will be destroyed, and billions of gallons of sulfuric acid runoff from the waste rock piles will pour through the Bad River watershed into Lake Superior. Never mind, that’s just reality rearing its ugly head again.
“The Governor’s assertion that a mining bill will create in excess of 5,000 new short- and long-term jobs is pure fantasy,” said Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison). “Even if some bill becomes law, objections from the Army Corps of Engineers and tribal sovereignty concerns about water quality and pollution will lock this issue up in the courts for many years.”
Jon Greendeer, Chairman of the Ho Chunk nation, attended the speech and afterward said of Walker’s flag argument, “I’ve never seen a badger that has eaten the top of a mountain off.”
When asked about Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’s statement last week that consultation with tribes happens only after a law has been passed, Chairman Greendeer said: “Vos’s understanding of consultation with tribes is displaced. Consultation means dialog, learning and respect.” He went on, “In tribal government, we understand that our roles aren’t exclusive to those who elect us. Tribes know that decisions we make have impact beyond tribal communities. The environment has no borders. If the driver is job creation, the best jobs are ones that are created with community input that are sustainable and long-term.”
He also detected an air of fantasy about the proposed project. Referring to the boom and bust nature of mining and the long-term health effects on people living in mining communities, Greendeer said, “The reality in former mining communities is living proof that (mining proponents’) vision for jobs doesn’t reflect long-term, sustainable community development.”
Without going into details, Walker also touched on his agenda for public education. He characterized the abolition of collective bargaining rights for teachers and the $1.6 billion in cuts to public schools as reforms that “saved school districts hundreds of millions of dollars and allowed each district to hire based on merit and pay based on performance.”
He alluded to new performance-based funding mechanisms in the new budget that “provide a financial incentive for high-performing and rapidly improving schools” and “help failing schools fundamentally change their structure.” On its face, this looks like a reverse Robin Hood policy of giving to the rich who can afford to invest in the small class sizes, up-to-date science and computer labs and other amenities that cause a school to be “high performing,” while doing nothing to support the poor who need it the most.
What a fundamental change to the structure of “failing” schools means is anybody’s guess. Mine is that it means school closures, more charter schools (perhaps associated with technical colleges), and more voucher money taken out of local school district budgets given to parents of students in “failing” public schools in order to send their kids to religious ones. We won’t know for sure until the budget comes out next month.
Walker titled last night’s speech, “Bold Vision and Bright Hope for the Future.” But Walker’s vision is blurred and his hope is misplaced. When Republican flights of fancy are finally grounded in the implementation stage, the clash with the reality of the people who actually live here and are confronted with the consequences of these policies may come as quite a shock to those who promote them.
During Walker’s speech a group of about 40 people gathered in the rotunda to sing songs of resistance and protest. Every so often the singing seeped through to the assembly chamber, and at one point shouts of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” could be heard quite distinctly. Outside the windows of the Governor’s office, the Overpass Light Brigade displayed a message of their own: “It’s Not Working.”
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website.