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Wisconsin: Five Things

by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 2, 2011

1. Who caused Wisconsin’s budget shortfall. In the short term, it was Gov. Scott Walker. “Before Wisconsin’s budget went bust, Governor Walker signed $117 million in corporate tax breaks. Wisconsin’s immediate budget shortfall is $137 million,” notes Robert Reich on Market Playground.

In the longer term, Wisconsin, like most states and localities, is suffering from the irresponsible actions of Wall Street, and from the short-sighted austerity policies being enacted at the federal and state level that destroy the very things—infrastructure, a well-educated workforce, and quality of life—that are proven to be a much, much stronger draw/incubator for business than lower taxes.

2. How much public employees really get paid. Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8 percent less in total compensation (including all benefits) than comparable private sector workers. Rumors floating around that they earn much more fail to control for anything, but especially education, which tends to be higher in the public sector because many public sector jobs (like teaching) require graduate degrees, while many lower-skilled public sector jobs have been privatized.

3. What Else Is in Walker’s Budget Bill, and Who Benefits. The fact that Walker is demanding an end to collective bargaining rights despite willingness on the part of unionized public employees to make concessions to help with a budget deficit they didn’t cause is getting most of the attention. And that’s huge and completely unacceptable. But it’s not all that’s in that bill.

For example, one provision in the bill reads: “The department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount the department determines to be in the best interest of the state.” (Emphasis mine.) Without bids? For whatever price he wants? “In essence, publicly owned energy facilities can be sold like used furniture,” writes former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson. That would sound like the height of fiscal irresponsibility, driven only by ideological opposition to public ownership of anything, even without the Koch brothers involved.

But the Koch brothers—top funders of right-wing political activism and climate-change denial and owners of a company that is among the top 10 air polluters in the country—are involved. They funneled money into Walker’s campaign, they are funneling money into supporting his union-busting bill, and they get their calls (or calls that purport to be them) taken when the governor won’t talk to duly elected legislative leaders in his own state. And as billionaire owners of energy conglomerates, they stand to benefit mightily from the door this opens to taxpayer-funded sweetheart deals.

4. Who the Protestors Are. In a nutshell: not all liberals. A number of firsthand accounts I’ve received tell a fascinating and heartening tale of people coming together across ideological lines, recognizing their shared self-interest against an ideologue who has gone over the edge. Remember that the cops and firefighters who have figured so largely in these protests were exempted from the attack on collective bargaining in the bill. But, to quote one of the police protestors, they “know right from wrong” and stood in solidarity with their fellow workers anyway.
“A lot of Wisconsin conservatives value quality government services, especially at the local/school district level,” writes a friend from the area. “There is plenty in these proposals for Wisconsin conservatives to hate, because at the end of the day, they have a lot more to lose (and less to gain) from busting the unions and gutting local governments than the state and national GOP does.” On that theme, the op-ed circulating by UW professor Marc Seals, a long-time committed Republican and social conservative, blasting the budget proposal, accusing Walker of hubris, and asking for “my party back,” is particularly powerful.

“In a nation divided between left and right, this may be the one place in the country where people are finding common ground across political differences,” writes another UW professor.

5. It’s not just Wisconsin. We may be lucky not to have a Tea Party governor here in New York, but make no mistake—the same fights in somewhat less extreme terms are upon us. To keep New York on a path to real recovery rather than suffering short-term non-fixes that do more harm than good, we may all need to learn to fight like cheeseheads.