Friday, June 21, 2013

A Budget For Two Wisconsins

Scott Walker and his legislative allies must really love Wisconsin. Because they seem determined to create two of them.

The state budget proposed by the governor, amended some and passed by both houses of the Legislature, and now returned to Walker's desk for his signature is a budget for two Wisconsins.

It takes Wisconsin farther down the path to the establishment of two separate school systems – one that can easily be segregated by race, class and academic ability or disability, and another that is well on its way to becoming little more than a dumping ground for the kids the private schools don't want or can't serve. As the state's private school voucher system is expanded statewide, it's hard not to notice that pro-voucher interests have pumped $97 million into Wisconsin elections in the last decade while those opposed to school privatization have contributed about $10.5 million.

Despite alarming levels of income inequality, the budget doubles down on trickle-down economics with a tax plan that showers a windfall on the wealthiest and throws table scraps to everyone else. As parallel tax systems emerge for the politically well connected and the peasantry, it's hard not to reflect on the fact that all of the money spent on Wisconsin elections comes from a donor class barely equal to 2% of the state's voting age population.

This budget is packed with more non-budget policy items than any state budget in recent memory. All of this junk is worth billions to an array of special interests that have contributed close to $33 million to the governor and legislators who shaped the budget. And of course all of this junk comes at the expense of the rest of the state's taxpayers who do not benefit much if at all from these political favors.

There is a new tax deduction for private school tuition. Looser rules for cutting off cable TV service and collecting payday loan debts. A nice tax break for the purveyors of junk mail. (Great! That's just what we need.... More junk mail.) Another item tucked in the budget further limits the ability of people harmed by defective products to sue manufacturers.

The budget greases the skids for selling public property without competitive bidding, opening the door to sweetheart sales of office buildings, prisons, power plants, university dormitories and even highways.

Perhaps the budget provision that most powerfully illustrates who lawmakers are catering to is the refusal of federal funds for Medicaid expansion. The decision means roughly 85,000 people will be denied access to medical insurance but state taxpayers will actually pay more than we would if the federal money were accepted and the additional people added to the program.

Lawmakers essentially told 85,000 low-income people "tough luck." But when the hospital industry squawked about how turning down the federal money could shift costs to the hospitals and hurt their bottom line, legislators snapped to attention and promptly took $73.5 million more from state taxpayers and planted it in the budget to compensate the hospitals for any adverse financial impacts they might experience.

This is a budget only big campaign donors could love. And what's not to love? It is a budget designed to give them their own separate Wisconsin.

To keep as many people as possible from noticing, the budget-writers included an amendment that evicts the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW-Madison campus and forbids UW faculty and staff from working with the center. This is not only an attack on press freedom and the award-winning watchdog reporting WCIJ is doing, but it also is an affront to academic freedom and a crippling blow to an invaluable collaborative effort to train the next generation of news reporters.

Can't have journalism students mingling with actual journalists. Just like we can't have the royals mingling with the rabble.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

While Wisconsin Slept

In the middle of the night a key committee of Wisconsin's Legislature did something petty, vindictive and un-American.

No, I am not talking about the budget committee's decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage, meaning Wisconsin taxpayers will pay $119 million more to provide 85,000 fewer people health insurance. To those 85,000 the committee essentially said "tough luck." But when the lobbyists for the hospitals squawked about how rejecting the federal health insurance expansion would end up harming their bottom line, the budget writers promptly added $73.5 million to the spending plan to compensate them.

That was done during waking hours.

When most everyone in our fair state was sleeping, the committee added language to the state budget that simultaneously assaults both press freedom and academic freedom.

The amendment prohibits the UW Board of Regents from permitting the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any university facilities, and prohibits UW employees from working with the Center.

The Center is doing award-winning watchdog journalism and has broken numerous important stories, including the physical altercation between two members of the state Supreme Court. At a time when the Capitol press corps is shrinking and the journalists are vastly outnumbered by the swarm of lobbyists prowling the halls on behalf of special interest clients, Wisconsin needs innovative nonprofit news organizations like the Center for Investigative Journalism now more than ever.

The Center is being attacked because it is doing a good job of serving the public's need to know what is going on in our government. The Center is being attacked because there are people in high places at the Capitol who don't want media scrutiny of their actions.

In addition to the Center's reporting, it has forged a terrific partnership with the UW's School of Journalism to help train the next generation of journalists. The Center provides paid internships to J-School students and gives them practical experience and mentoring. Some of those students are among the Center's award winners. Telling the UW it can have nothing to do with the Center is not only another creepy attack on the university and the academic freedom of its employees, it is a huge disservice to the students.

This past week has been a bleak one for democracy in Wisconsin. First, legislation was put on a fast track to make it harder to vote and easier for special interests to influence elections and easier for the governor to stack the agency charged with overseeing elections and ethics. Now this attack on press freedom and the training of future journalists.

Is anyone awake out there? Does anyone understand what's being done here?

Monday, June 03, 2013

Junk Bond

Luther Olsen has always struck me as a good guy. I have known the Ripon-area senator for about 20 years. I dealt with him extensively on school issues when he was in the state Assembly and chaired the education committee. I always found him to be a straight shooter.

That's why I believe him when he says he reached an agreement with other state leaders on public school funding and expansion of the state's private school voucher program. He says he shook on it with the governor and said pointedly, "Where I come from, your word is your bond."

Indeed it is. In Luther Olsen's world.

The problem is, the school privatization advocates and their water carriers with whom Senator Olsen has to negotiate do not seem to operate in that same world. Their track record in Wisconsin pegs them as the Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkens of the education business.

When private school vouchers were first pitched in Wisconsin 23 years ago, those doing the pitching assured anyone who would listen that their "reforms" were tailored for Milwaukee. They insisted that the rest of the state didn't need such an intervention and couldn't benefit from vouchers. They also stressed that vouchers would go only to low-income families to give them the kind of educational options that middle-class and upper-income people already had.

That was the deal. Only for Milwaukee and only for the poor. A great many wary politicians took their word for it. The deal was done.

And then it was undone. Those peddling vouchers changed their tune and argued that communities like Beloit and Green Bay and Racine also needed vouchers. They succeeded in getting the program expanded to Racine. They whined about how it was unfair to deny such a valuable state benefit to people of modest means. In no time they talked lawmakers into boosting the eligibility threshold to incomes up to three times the federal poverty level. Vouchers were not only for Milwaukee and not only for the poor anymore.

Today that revised deal is in the process of being undone. Now they want to expand the voucher program statewide, but with limits on enrollment and tighter income eligibility levels. Senator Olsen says he shook on that. The state budget bill that is to include this agreement hasn't even been passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor yet, and already it looks about as durable as the original only-for-Milwaukee/only-for-the-poor deal.

Governor Scott Walker already has gone on the record saying "every two years we're going to come back and talk about further expansion."

What's more, the national group that authors of all this education "reform" legislation isn't exactly coy about its ultimate aim, namely privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives and, by so doing, weakening or entirely eliminating local school districts and school boards.

If that becomes the final deal, Wisconsin will find itself with a system where unaccountable privately run schools can easily segregate students by academic ability and disability, economics, ethnicity, language and culture. And a whole lot of people will wonder how we got there, and will demand to know who agreed to go along for the ride.