Commentary

How long can Republicans keep running on resentment and austerity?

June 10, 2021 6:30 am
Very tight close up on the eye on a one dollar US bill

Photo by peasap | Flickr CC BY 2.0

It’s breath-taking the amount of money Republicans are determined to turn away on behalf of the people of Wisconsin.

When the Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported on Tuesday that the state would see an “unprecedented” revenue increase, with tax collections over the next three years predicted to more than double the money in the state’s general fund to $5.8 billion, Gov. Tony Evers pointed out that there is plenty of money available to fund his total K-12 budget request of $1.6 billion. 

The Evers education budget would be transformative for schools across the state. It would lift the burden of the unfunded special education mandate, which forces districts large and small to cut programs and take more than $1 billion per year out of their general funds to cover federally mandated special education costs that aren’t covered by the state. 

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But instead of investing in Wisconsin schools, and despite a warning from the U.S. Department of Education and the pleading of members of Congress, Republican legislators passed a budget for schools that amount to less than one-tenth of what Evers wanted. On top of that, the Republican plan jeopardizes $1.5 billion in federal money Wisconsin has been put on notice it might not receive, because the state is failing to make the minimum required investment in its own schools.

Sen. LaTonya Johnson

On transportation, the Republicans approved about half of the $555.8 million Evers proposed, and, just out of spite, threw in a 50% cut to public transit for Madison and Milwaukee. Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) pointed out that cutting bus service will make it harder for unemployed people to get to work — a big GOP talking point, as Republicans argue that it’s time to cut off unemployment insurance in order to motivate people to get back on the job. “You can’t say you want people to go back to work and then impede their ability to do so,” Johnson said.

Republicans’ staunch opposition to accepting the federal BadgerCare expansion is costing the state $1.6 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, and another $1 billion on top of that, in federal incentives tied to the expansion, which would cover 90% of health care costs for any childless adult earning up to 138% of the poverty line.

To justify their budget proposals, which dramatically underfund Wisconsin’s schools, transportation, infrastructure and health care, Republicans try to stoke resentment, calling Medicaid and unemployment insurance “welfare” programs. They take shots at people who live in Milwaukee and Madison — as if city-dwellers were getting money at the expense of people who live in rural and suburban areas. During the school funding debate, they made a big deal about how much Title I money Milwaukee gets to help defray the costs of serving large numbers of students living in poverty. They also made a point of making some school aid conditional on schools having remained fully open throughout the pandemic (as larger urban districts could not safely do). But trying to pit one group of voters against another doesn’t work as well when the Republicans are turning down billions that would make a big difference in people’s lives in every area of the state. 

They are betting that their own constituents would rather see poor people in Milwaukee get less money for schools and transportation and health care than have their own schools and transportation and health care funded. 

It will be interesting to see if this mean-spirited, divide-and-conquer approach to politics continues to succeed under current circumstances. As Wisconsin emerges from the pandemic, there is a lot of money on offer to rebuild our state and set up future success. Republicans are on the record turning down that money, and forcing their constituents to live with the results.

It’s a dramatic missed opportunity.

Gov. Tony Evers screenshot
Gov. Tony Evers

Evers is betting that his kinder, gentler approach will be more popular with voters come 2022. In announcing that he will run for re-election last weekend, he declared, “We know Republicans aren’t going to make this easy.”

“One predictable thing about this pandemic and, heck, ever since November 2018, is that Republicans would do everything in their power to stop our success,” Evers said, “to keep us from getting things done to keep Wisconsin headed in the right direction.”

Echoing President Joe Biden, he added, “This is a moment when we can choose to fix the big problems in Wisconsin and bounce back stronger than ever before.”

The combination of ambitious federal investments and a windfall worth billions in state revenue make that statement demonstrably true.

Will voters believe that the Republicans are good stewards of the state economy after they turn down the opportunity to fix the roads, invest in rural broadband and put local schools on sound footing? Will people notice that all that talk about what a great job Republicans did saving money doesn’t match up with the more than doubling of revenue in state coffers under a Democratic governor? 

Ben Wikler
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler speaks at a climate rally outside of Sen. Ron Johnson’s Madison office on June 8, 2021. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“The Republicans’ newfound commitment to austerity has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with trying to inflict pain on regular people when Democrats are in power,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. 

He points to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s deciding vote for the Trump tax plan, which drove up the deficit with a massive giveaway to the very wealthy and to another example, Wisconsin Republicans’ support for the multi trillion dollar corporate incentives for the troubled FoxConn plant. (Evers’ renegotiation of the FoxConn contract is one reason the state’s revenue picture is looking so good, my colleague Melanie Conklin reports.)

It’s only when there’s a Democratic governor or a Democratic president that Republicans suddenly become penny-pinching deficit hawks. 

That posture is particularly out of sync as we emerge from a pandemic.

This week Johnson voted against the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support. 

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin
February 15, 2012 | Washington, D.C.
Official Oversight and Government Reform photograph

The Act includes a $120 billion investment in technological and manufacturing research, technical education and worker training programs, as part of an effort to put the United States on a more competitive footing with China. It also contains provisions that would hold China accountable for cybersecurity threats and theft of U.S. intellectual property. 

Wisconsin boosters hope that the state could see part of the $52 billion allocated for the semiconductor industry channeled to the FoxConn plant.

Not only did Johnson vote against the Innovation and Competition Act, he tied it up in the U.S. Senate, delaying its passage. It’s only the most recent in a series of maneuvers by Johnson that undermine the interests of most Wisconsinites, which also includes his effort to stall the Senate to block the American Rescue Plan Act and his votes against COVID relief checks, Wikler points out.

In what is clearly a warm-up for a 2022 senate race by one of a long list of Democrats who want to run against Johnson, Wikler adds, “Politically he’s like the Wily Coyote who runs off the edge of the cliff without looking down yet. Every time he votes against deeply popular legislation that benefits Wisconsin families directly. It’s another black mark in his political record. And his only theory about how to get out of this is to appeal to the furthest right fringe and get Donald Trump to come bail him out.”

That theory is about to be put to the test all over our state.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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