Tax reform bus tour rides into Wisconsin

By: - July 25, 2019 7:00 am

The Tax-the-Rich Bus waits across the street from the State Capitol Wednesday morning. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The message on the big green bus that rolled into Madison on Wednesday morning was a succinct three words: “Tax the Rich!”

It’s a message that Dana Bye, campaign director for the group Tax March, which sponsored the bus tour, says has special salience in the wake of the Trump Administration’s sweeping 2017 tax overhaul. 

Contrary to Republican claims about the federal 2017 tax overhaul, independent assessments have found that it favored the wealthy with larger tax cuts and therefore made income inequality worse, and that it would likely hurt the majority of non-wealthy taxpayers as lawmakers struggle to pay for it over the long term. 

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, an economist from the Brookings Institution also warned of increased federal fiscal troubles, future difficulty in fighting a recession, higher health insurance costs and reduced health insurance coverage.

Clear rallying cry

Dana Bye put it more starkly on Wednesday in Madison, the 23rd stop for the big green bus and its “Tax the Rich Bus Tour.” Reiterating the motto on the side of the bus, she said: “Today our rallying cry is clear! Tax the rich!”

The 2017 law was one more example, Bye told a handful of people at a news conference in front of the State Capitol, of how “conservative lawmakers continue putting their wealthy donors and big corporations first, leaving working people to pick up the tab.”

Also speaking at the Wednesday event, University of Wisconsin economist Laura Dresser pointed to the persistence of the problem — and its double-barrelled impact.

“Nearly all of the rewards of the economic growth that we’ve had in this country have been concentrated at the top,” she said, among the highest earners. “But we have tax policy that, rather than counteracting that ruinous inequality, is feeding and fueling that inequality — so that the rewards of that tax policy are also concentrated on the rich.”

State effects, also

It’s not only federal tax policy. State tax policy in the last decade has echoed the pattern, Dresser said. In Wisconsin, “We have consistently found ways to reward corporations, especially in our tax code, and that puts more burden on working people, whose wages are not going up in a time when wages and incomes at the top end are going up.”

The bus trip kicked off in Miami on June 26 as Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls held their first round of debates. Since then it’s rolled through Georgia, South and North Carolina, on up the eastern seaboard to Maine, and across the country to the southwest before traveling to Missouri, Iowa, and now Wisconsin.

The tour has stops in Green Bay Thursday morning and Milwaukee Thursday afternoon before rolling on to Chicago. It’s scheduled to conclude in Detroit next week in time for the next round of Democratic debates there.

Tax March, which organized the trip, started as a 2017 protest demanding the release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns and then evolved in 2018 into a protest against the 2017 GOP tax law and a drive for tax code reforms that would close loopholes favoring corporations and the wealthy.

‘Pay their fair share’

At each stop, Bye said, the tour brings aboard local representatives to drive home its message about the need for major tax law reform benefiting the average taxpayer and ensuring that the wealthy “pay their fair share.” The Iowa stop drew a crowd because it overlapped the state’s annual “RAGBRAI” cross-state bike ride.

Polling on behalf of the Tax the Rich bus tour have echoed earlier findings — namely that higher taxes on the wealthy have broad support in the electorate, Bye said in an interview. A poll released in time for the tour’s Madison stop found that 62% of Wisconsin residents favor repealing the 2017 law. The same survey found 79% favor higher taxes on the wealthy, and 60% “strongly” favor that concept.

Practical considerations help drive public opinion, as organizers connect tax breaks for the wealthy with cuts in popular government health and social welfare programs, Bye said. But for many, the issue takes on a moral dimension. “It’s more of a question of fairness,” she added. “For the majority of Americans the system isn’t working for them.”

Wide-ranging impact

Brian Eisold, a Milwaukee activist, speaks at the State Capitol on Wednesday with his 9-year-old son.

Brian Eisold, a Milwaukee activist, spoke at Wednesday’s stop about college students saddled with mountains of debt, entry-level workers who “should not be struggling to afford health care,” and retirees who may fear missing out on a strong Social Security program “to ensure the elderly never need to live in poverty.” As he recited each scenario, Eisold offered a litany: “That is why we need to tax the rich.”

State Rep. Chris Taylor

State Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison), contrasted disparate effects from the 2017 tax law. “The average cut that Wisconsin’s top 1% got from this federal scam was $39,610 for those earning more than $542,000,” Taylor said. “In contrast, the average tax cut next year for a worker making less than $25,000 was just $60 — and these are workers that tend to be women and people of color.”

Nodding to the Capitol behind her, Taylor also linked the impact to the influence wealthy people have on campaigns and lawmakers. “This federal tax giveaway has done nothing to help working families but has lined the coffers of Republican corporate donors, who then control what policy agenda my Republican colleagues in this building and federally push,” she said. “The people of this state are not setting the agenda. It’s the big donors.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.