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.