Monday, February 21, 2011

Naked class warfare

It is hard to keep track of all the democracy surges currently underway. Libya, even. Who would've thunk it? Always interesting, of course, to see the difference in the way the US media covers surges, depending on their location and geopolitical significance. Madison is particularly on mind, though. The mainstream media's inflation of the Tea Party's showing offers a classic example of how far from "balanced" their coverage is. But today, I find myself dwelling on two pieces of information about Governor Scott Walker's so-called Budget Repair Bill that the mainstream media have determinedly ignored or played down-- information that underscores what Walker's shenanigans are really about.

The first piece of information, which ought to be mentioned every time the media mention the "Budget Repair Bill," is that Walker himself created the budget "imbalance." Here's a post at Talking Points Memo (made last week):

This broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

"Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control," says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future -- a public interest think tank. "He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes."

"The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed," Norman adds.

In a Wednesday op-ed, the Capitol Times of Madison picked up on this theme.
In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state's budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million. To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.
You can read the fiscal bureaus report here (PDF). It holds that "more than half" of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker's initiatives:
  • $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.
  • $48 million for private health savings accounts -- a perennial Republican favorite.
  • $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.
In essence, public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda. "The provisions in his bill do two things simultaneously," Norman says. "They remove bargaining rights, and having accomplished that, make changes in the benefit packages." That's how Walker's plan saves money. And when it's all said and done, these workers will have lost their bargaining rights going forward in perpetuity.
Second, there's the fire-sale provision in the bill that is likely there to benefit Scott Walker's chief benefactors, the infamous Koch brothers. Here is Ed at

The lion's share of attention regarding Scott Walker's legislative proposal has been paid to the effort to revoke Wisconsin public employees' collective bargaining rights, but the 144-page bill (more reliable link here) is a far more exhaustive and inclusive list of the fundamentals of Republican politics in the 21st Century. Not many people have the time to plow through the whole bill but those who do will be rewarded with plenty of gems like this:
16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), 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 that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).
If this isn't the best summary of the goals of modern conservatism, I don't know what is. It's like a highlight reel of all of the high-flying slam dunks of neo-Gilded Age corporatism: privatization, no-bid contracts, deregulation, and naked cronyism. Extra bonus points for the explicit effort to legally redefine the term "public interest" as "whatever the energy industry lobbyists we appoint to these unelected bureaucratic positions say it is."
In case it isn't clear where the naked cronyism comes in, remember which large, politically active private interest loves buying up power plants and already has considerable interests in Wisconsin.

And if that's not enough to make your blood boil, consider this: the state of Michigan is choosing to "balance" its budget by shutting down half of the schools in Detroit--and increasing class sizes to 60 students. No, that's not a typo. SIXTY STUDENTS. Just imagine that. All of this crap is coming at a time when the rich have never been richer, when the financial industry has taken billions in hand-outs from the federal government and lavished it on its executives to reward them for their corruption and incompetence. Reminds me of an argument I had with one of my Louisiana relatives about ten years ago. He argued, if you can believe it, against any form of public education. No child "deserves" an education, he said. Well, I guess that's what the folks in Michigan are thinking, too.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

I hadn't heard that the Wisconsin budget wasn't really in trouble. Interesting. Apparently the Koch brothers are supporting Walker and the Tea Party interests in Wisconsin, too.

In Texas, where the governor has insisted the recession wasn't really that bad because of our great bidness climate, we really do have a big budget hole -- $27 billion -- so we're cutting education and payments to Medicaid providers, among other things. But the gov doesn't even want to use our $9 billion rainy day fund to cover some of it; guess he doesn't think it's raining hard enough.

Josh said...

Nancy, TU and other university administrations are similarly niggardly with rainy-day funds: there's a big "contingency fund" in the budget which is de facto untouchable.

Timmi, I think that "deserves" argument was a major rhetorical tool of the Right back then; now we have crabs-in-a-bucket arguments in which the issue of deserts is kind of subtextual. People will say that nobody's as privileged as mass transit workers, for example (I heard that one five years ago), and think it self-evident that that means mass transit workers deserve to suffer like "everybody else" rather than inferring that "everybody else" deserves better than we're getting.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

It seems to me there's been a very successful divide and conquer campaign aimed at various groups of working people. During the meltdown, we heard all about the Cadillac pensions and health care plans of the GM workers and retirees (as if they hadn't given up pay increases along the way for those benefits). Now we're hearing attacks on government workers and their good benefits. Yet none of these people make serious money -- they make a decent wage for their area, no more. Meanwhile income inequality in the US has met or exceeded that of the Gilded Age. And no one is complaining about the rich having too many of the assets, or thinking about taxing them at a fair rate so that we can afford to pay our government employees what they're worth, not to mention reducing their income from corporate dividends so that workers in other industries can get a fair wage.

In other words, it looks like an effort to pit working people against working people -- especially when you add in the high unemployment rate, not to mention the poverty rate. It's driving me nuts.

BTW, I know of at least one right wing Republican person in Wisconsin who's mad at the governor and supporting the protestors because she's a state employee and doesn't want to lose her collective bargaining rights. Maybe we'll get something positive out of all this. I hear there are similar protests against a similar law in Ohio.