Konopacki 5/15/19

The Republicans in control of the Wisconsin Legislature have boldly stepped up to let everyone know they plan to continue down the road to turn Wisconsin into a backwater state.

Getting their first crack at Gov. Tony Evers' budget, his first since being elected last November, the Republicans immediately tossed out most of the governor's proposals, including insuring thousands of more people by expanding Medicaid, giving municipalities more leeway on raising their own revenues and, of course, Evers' plan to begin raising the state's embarrassingly low minimum wage.

That was just for starters. Virtually every proposal that Evers told voters he would push if elected was tossed out by the Republicans, including Evers' plan to put a cap on tax breaks for wealthy corporations and factory farms.

The expansion of Medicaid, which, because of new federal money, would free up $324 million that the state could use for other purposes like local education and the UW system, fell victim once again to the Wisconsin GOP's tired and irrational anti-Obamacare bias. Despite growing public support for expanding the program, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, never much known for his common sense, continues to say no.

The minimum wage issue, while not as top of mind as it is during hard economic times, is so emblematic of how these legislators refuse to offer a helping hand to struggling working people, but find it so easy to cut taxes and offer taxpayer-financed incentives to the Foxconns and Kimberly-Clarks among us.

It has now been 10 years since Wisconsin last raised the minimum wage. The $7.25 per hour is worth about 17 percent less in 2019 than it was in 2009. Meanwhile, the majority of other states have seen fit to raise the floor during that time. On January 1 this year alone, 19 states hiked their minimum wage rates.

According to the folks who keep track of such things, the average across the country will be $11.80 this year. That higher average minimum is helped by cities and counties that were able to set higher minimums in their own jurisdictions. Wisconsin's municipalities were able to enact their own "living wage" minimums until Gov. Scott Walker and this current crop of legislators took away that option several years ago.

While some cities and counties in pockets around the country have acted themselves, several states have gone even further. California, Massachusetts and Illinois are phasing in a $15-an-hour floor. The Evers budget proposal that legislative Republicans have seen fit to remove wasn't anywhere close to that. The governor had proposed hiking the $7.25 minimum wage to $10.50 in steps over the next four years, then adjusting for inflation after that — not exactly an overly generous plan.

Nevertheless, it's too outrageous for these legislators. On cue, the conservative Badger Institute, the chief apologizer for former Gov. Scott Walker and the current Republican lawmakers, pulled out the old canard that to raise the minimum wage would cost thousands of jobs.

The Bradley Foundation-supported "think tank," formerly known as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, claimed that to raise the wage to $15 an hour would put 350,000 Wisconsin jobs at risk. Economists Ike Brannon and Andrew Hanson, who have been visiting fellows at the Institute, claimed that up to 50 percent of all affected workers in food preparation and service would lose their jobs.

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That's a claim that has regularly been debunked by actual experience in raising wages for the working poor. The most recent example was Seattle, where $15 an hour was enacted two years ago. Like Brannon and Hanson, conservative economists and columnists warned that the Seattle workforce was doomed. It wasn't.

Studies conducted last year showed that the higher minimum wage benefited the vast majority of the city's low-wage work force and few experienced cutbacks in hours or the loss of their jobs.

Besides, raising the minimum typically nudges up wages for others as well.

But playing politics in order to stymie the ideas of a governor they lost to continues to take precedence over doing what's right for struggling working people.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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