In business journalism, it’s popular to suggest a company is “burning the furniture” when it takes ill-advised, short-term steps that compromise its ability to ever rebound.
In other words, when there is no money for fuel in the middle of winter, desperate residents resort to burning the furniture, which obviously only works as long as the furniture lasts.
The state of Wisconsin has been burning furniture these past few years, haphazardly cutting taxes beyond what’s prudent and placing our historically excellent system of public education, both K-12 and the university system, in jeopardy. It has also been undercutting — soup to nuts — the signature programs, policies and protections that have defined Wisconsin since the Progressive Era of a century ago.
Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans came into office four years ago next month facing a $3.6-billion budget deficit. The governor proclaimed us “broke,” and yet reduced revenue during his first term by $1.9 billion by targeting taxes paid by his high-income donors. And now, despite the major national economic recovery, he confronts a $2.2-billion budget deficit.
Given GOP control, tax increases are out of the question, other than clever “fee” ideas for transportation, one type of public spending that Republicans like. (Actually, not so much transportation spending as spending on roads and not mass transit. Remember the constitutional amendment to wall off transportation revenues in perpetuity? Republicans like roads, but they absolutely love the GOP donors who want them.)
I suggest keeping this broader historical frame in mind to understand likely developments in weeks and months to come.
This isn’t to let Democrats off the hook. When they controlled things, they also had agendas, pushing spending programs and rewarding supporters. It is hard to understand how Democrats and the state teachers’ union could have been so tone-deaf to the growing — and thus exploitable — contempt average residents felt for the lack of shared suffering after the 2008 recession. When they finally offered to compromise and accept cuts, the Act 10 train had already left the station.
Madison’s left likely assumed Walker’s attack on public-employee unions was viewed outside Dane County in the way it was seen by the audiences of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert: as grossly unfair and repugnant. Instead, outraged protesters outside the Capitol Building in 2011 were apparently regarded by Joe and Mary in Wausau in the way, decades before, that the “silent majority” saw mouthy Vietnam protesters.
Democrats, here and nationally, face the herculean challenge of somehow recalibrating so they are regarded as disciplined and compassionate advocates for regular people and as leaders who carefully invest in training and education programs, affording opportunity for all, while maintaining a humane safety net where justified. Not, as the GOP has deftly framed them, as a collection of special interests, few of which seem to speak to the plumber in Oshkosh or the waitress in Wausau.
In some respects, I’m in awe of how Walker and Republicans take direction from millionaires and billionaires without consequences.
Wisconsin’s reputation as a place with superb public schools and services and trusted, problem-solving state and local governments endured for decades, whether Republicans and Democrats had control. We paid higher-than-average taxes for that.
Things began to change when Lee Dreyfus, a Republican, was elected governor partly by attacking large budget reserves, making “fiscal brinksmanship” a popular phrase around 1980. One sees echoes of that in the rebukes of the University of Wisconsin System’s level of budget reserves in recent times.
Maybe the GOP has actually convinced voters that we do not need and cannot afford a world-class research university such as the one we have at UW-Madison. After all, it is GOP pols who like to say — to dodge overwhelming evidence that climate change exists — that they cannot opine on it because they are not scientists. So, not grasping the promise of stem cells and other advanced research, maybe they think Wisconsin’s flagship university should stick to training for professions they understand.
What has changed, of course, is that unlike former GOP Gov. Tommy Thompson and other leaders who embraced shared governance, Walker and today’s Republicans have a go-for-broke goal of fundamentally changing Wisconsin into a low-tax, low-service state — a place with limited hopes and limited dreams.
They continue to win despite their weak jobs record. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week showed our state ranks 32nd in private-sector job growth, lagging Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota.
In weeks and months to come, I invite you to monitor the news from the Capitol under the following headings:
• There will be a concocted need for more program cuts, because that is the narrative Walker and pals have created despite an improved economy. So, by golly, even undeniably meritorious programs must be reduced in the interest of more tax cuts.
• There will be more attempts to reduce pay and benefits for state workers and retirees, because the GOP perceives all unions and public workers as the enemy.
• There will be stepped-up efforts to sell state assets to benefit GOP donors.
• In keeping with their efforts to win elections by changing the rules (think gerrymandered political boundaries and voter suppression) they will try to kill the Government Accountability Board, an effective, nonpartisan arbiter of election matters. The GAB is a model entity filled with retired judges. But hey, the GOP controls the executive and legislative branches, and — with a compliant State Supreme Court majority — the judicial branch, too. So why not eliminate the one threatening outlier, an entity it cannot control that might shine light on possible corruption?
• And the GOP will continue to undermine strong public schools as part of the conservative private-school movement. The only “good” public spending will go to roads, and maybe prisons, because that is the kind of “government” Republicans can appreciate.
As an acquaintance who is a former state budget expert commented to me recently: “I think I am going to save about $200 in taxes but everything that makes Wisconsin special will be gone.”
Happy new year.