Burning Down Wisconsin: The Hidden Budget Bill Item Even Worse Than Union Busting

by Abe Sauer

Read all of our Wisconsin coverage here.

It’s already been a long weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters slept on the capitol floor and some Republican state legislators, after attempting to hold an illegal vote on Friday, made excuses for why they would not be seen in the communities they represent.

Republican Senator Alberta Darling canceled her weekend plans to attend an event in Menomonee Falls, a city she represents. She tweeted, “I will not be attending ChillyFest in MF tomorrow. I have to be ready at a moment’s notice to go back to Madison to do the people’s work.” Maybe because she was born in Indiana and grew up in Peoria, Illinois, she’s unaware that Menomonee Falls is even closer to Madison than her home near the lake in River Hills.

Once it became clear that Democrats would not be seen in public, the state patrol was ordered to retrieve them and drag them back to make quorum. That State Patrol is newly under the command of Stephen Fitzgerald, one of Governor Scott Walker’s latest appointments. Stephen just happens to be the father of Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald — Wisconsin’s most powerful Republicans. (After being trounced by a 2-to-1 margin in the November election for Dodge County sheriff, Fitzgerald was rewarded with the State Patrol position.)

Welcome to the New Wisconsin Idea, where intellectualism is a handicap in a state now leading a reactionary revolution. Somewhere around 60,000 people each day turned out for the GOP’s all new show, where the marquee event is watching middle class workers, private and public, rip each other to shreds while the vampiric money class sops up the blood.

Famous national acts old and new showed up to attach their faces to the goings on in the Badger State. Jesse Jackson. Andrew Breitbart. The one thing the legacy acts had in common was that, whatever happened, they won’t be worse off financially.

Breitbart, presumably taking a break from his recent promise to “obtain justice for the truly and legitimately discriminated against American black farmers,” was joined by Madison’s right wing radio host Vicki McKenna. Mckenna, as we noted last week, had manufactured a claim that liberals were calling for Walker’s assassination. Their pro-Walker rally drew several thousand.

Don’t let Breitbart or anyone else complain about a lack of coverage of the tea party counter-protest. The Wisconsin State Journal, ran an entire photo journal titled “Saturday protests at the Capitol” — which contained photos only of the Walker supporters. It also contained a statement about the reading of “a letter from Alaska Governor and TEA Party supporter Sarah Palin during the gathering.” (The Journal apparently forgot that Palin resigned years ago.)

Milwaukee AM 620 radio’s Charlie Sykes reported on a Madison where “mobs roamed the halls” and “a senior senator was spat on.” (Video or it didn’t happen.) Noting the garbage in the square, the account exclaimed, exasperatedly, “This is one of the most beautiful Capitol buildings in the country.” That Governor Scott Walker has announced the unprecedented plan to give his budget address not in this “most beautiful Capitol” but at a private (inaccessible) business is an irony probably lost on almost everyone at the channel.

Sykes’ report also claimed that legislators “had been told to clear the Capitol because the new groups coming in overnight are filled with with people “who aren’t afraid to be arrested’.”

(Back in reality, one person at the rally who definitely knew about getting arrested by Madison police was Vicki McKenna herself. Back in June of 1997, when McKenna’s job was pushing the fart button for the Z104 FM morning show, she was booked under her real name (Vicki Pyzynski) for drunken and disorderly conduct and resisting arrest — at a U2 show. The arresting officer called McKenna “verbally and physically combative.”)

In any event, by 6 p.m., Andrew Breitbart was already off for Chicago, which brings the total time he found worth investing in Madison at around five hours, at best.

Meanwhile, in the rhetorical trudge, the Washington Post wins the weekend with the Stephen Stromberg column, headlined: “Wisconsin’s governor is not Hitler.” We can confirm that that is correct.

It will certainly bum out Breitbart, Mckenna and Fox News to learn that, in the end, the demonstrations were peaceful. On Saturday at 6 p.m., Madison police reported that, with an estimated 60,000 people in attendance, not only were there no arrests, but also “no major incidents.” Think about that for a minute. Nearly 60,000 impassioned and angry people arriving in a venue that did not plan for them resulted in zero arrests.

Some who could not be there for the protest showed support for the tens of thousands of cheeseheads in the most appropriate way possible: with cheese. Gooey, gooey cheese. By late day Saturday, Ian’s Pizza at 115 State Street reported taking 40 orders for pizza to be delivered to the demonstrators at the Capitol square.

L.A. comedian Jen Kirkman sent a pizza. Demonstrator Christine thanked her for it.

Through the weekend, calls to fire all of the Madison teachers who called in sick to protest were repeated. That this demand was of Madison teachers could not be more preposterous. Madison graduates 94 percent of its high school students (compared to a national average of around 70 percent). Just three years ago Forbes named Madison the second best city in all of America in which to educate a child. This is just one of the high rankings of Madison nationally — from safest for children, to elderly quality of life, to live music, to most innovative to, simply, best all around.

When this whole incident is done, it will probably force many residents of Madison (maybe justifiably) to double down in the belief that so much of the rest of the in-reverse state can just go disappear up its own anus.

* * *

One thing that’s been lost in all the bluster about the union busting measures was all the other juicy stuff in the bill itself. The very first detail not to be mentioned is that the “unreasonable” Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin’s largest teacher’s union — the one that Walker insists will not negotiate — just two weeks ago announced that it supports both merit-based pay reform and measures that would streamline the firing of under-performers.

It is all of those other juicy, and difficult to fully grasp, measures that probably had Walker pushing the bill through so fast. Jack Craver, of Madison’s favorite free paper, the Isthmus, asked on Saturday: “Could the threat of union-busting be a ruse to extract the most painful pay cuts from public employees in recent memory?” Craver’s theory is:

Walker went ahead with the most radical plan possible. And why not? His GOP majorities should have assured him victory, and who cares about unions anymore, he must have reasoned. Less than a fifth of Wisconsin’s workers belong to them, and most of those are in the public sector, meaning their suffering could be framed as a victory for everybody else.

Backing up this scenario: new polling data indicating public sentiment shifting against Walker’s bill, results the governor is now trying to explain away Dick Nixon style with “quiet majority” theory.

But I’ll do Craver one better and propose that Walker’s hard line on the whole union battle is a trick of complete misdirection from provisions in the bill that look much more dire. Just like a writer who hates being edited will include a garbage paragraph to protect the copy he or she really wants preserved while allowing the editor to feel useful, Walker’s union attack may be a ploy to distract from his “administrative rules” changes regarding Medicaid.

Wisconsin’s union employees are upset about a loss of collective bargaining and a mandated increase in benefit payments, including for health insurance. But at least these employees would still have health insurance. What has been widely ignored about Walker’s bill (in part because of the speed with which he’s fisting it down Wisconsin’s gullet) is a sneaky provision that paves the way for him to cut, or eliminate, Medicaid and BadgerCare healthcare benefits for low-income people.

Administrative rules changes sound about as interesting as the words “administrative rules.” And Walker’s “administrative rule” change is the kind of complex, procedural legislative legalese that few reporters are sickly masochistic enough to slog through. (And it’s especially true that nobody reports on America’s rising war on the poor. This was evidenced by the fact that major network stars have yet to appear in Madison, and, until this weekend, the tens of thousands sleeping in the capitol warranted segment bites equal in length and depth to the latest update on reporter Serene Branson’s migraine.)

So in short: Walker’s administrative rules change would allow the Department of Health Services, via the overwhelmingly GOP-controlled budget committee, to change state laws unilaterally, skipping the legislative process altogether. In terms Vicki McKenna can understand, this means Walker’s bill will allow the governor to subvert the legislative process and make his own laws without going through the tiresome and long American tradition of lawmaking. But wait, there’s more!

Not only should there be no doubt Walker would do this, his statements foreshadow who he would blame it on. On Feb 11th, before Madison got in the labor movement time machine, the governor said, “The alternative [to state employee health and pension changes] is to look at 1,500 layoffs of state employees or close to 200,000 children who would be bumped off Medicaid-related programs.” At the time, PolitiFact Wisconsin asked, “But can he remove children from Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays medical bills for low-income individuals and families?”

Not without the administrative rules change he can’t — the changes he’s going to get when this bill passes. The advantage of this approach to gutting Medicaid is that it avoids the nuisance legislative process that is currently gumming up a similar war on the poor in Texas.

In all Walker’s talk about private industry providing health insurance, and trimming back state outlays to health care, one fact that doesn’t get answered is exactly what the tens of thousands of people with private industry jobs who are also on state health assistance are to do. The apostrophes in Wisconsin employers like Menard’s, Roundy’s, McDonald’s, Land’s End and Kohl’s don’t ever precede the term “health insurance plan.” Those businesses have thousands of employees who are listed on the rolls of BadgerCare. BadgerCare recipients listed as employed at Wal-Mart alone number just shy of 10,000.

But wait! Just who has Walker appointed to head up the newly powerful Department of Health Services? A villain as innocuously named as the term “administrative rule” itself, Dennis Smith. As Capital Times reporter Shawn Doherty points out in a woefully overlooked piece, Smith is a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank hostile to Medicaid. How hostile? In 2009, Smith himself authored a paper titled “Medicaid Meltdown: Dropping Medicaid Could Save States $1 Trillion,” which concludes “failure to leave Medicaid might be viewed as irresponsible on the part of elected state officials.”

Yes, irresponsible.

To review: Walker argues that his bill’s benefit cuts are to bring public employees more in line with the realities of the state’s private workforce — while acknowledging that one of those realities is that hundreds of thousands of those in the private workforce rely on low income benefit assistance from the state. Meanwhile, the same bill making this argument paves the way to cut — without opposition, debate or legislative due process — those very same benefits.

What Walker really means when he says that Wisconsin is “open for business” is that Wisconsin is “closed for poor people.”

UPDATE: Sunday Night
As a follow-up of sorts: Tonight the Governor defended his bill by tweeting a link to a post at The Heritage Foundation.

The post, titled, “Myths vs. Facts of the Wisconsin Union Protest,” supports Walker’s bill by, in part, arguing that few opponents understand the gravity and size of the budget deficit.

Tweeting throughout the day, the link was one of only four links Gov. Walker provided to information or opinion defending his bill.

It just happens that Tina Korbe, the author of that Heritage piece, graduated with a BA in journalism from the University of Arkansas… in 2010.

More? As late as 2006, Korbe was a “Top 8 finalist” in the Arkansas Jr. Miss pageant. The year before, she was a semi-finalist in the Miss Arkansas’ Outstanding Teen Pageant. No worries though, she already was Miss Teen Diamond Lakes 2005.

So, to put that in perspective, when the governor of the entire state of Wisconsin finds time to defend a bill that could severely impact the financial well-being of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin workers, not to mention instituting the most sweeping changes to the balance of the state’s labor relations in 50 years, who does he point to? An 22-year-old (at best) who grew up in Arkansas and graduated with an undergraduate degree in journalism less than a year ago.

No coincidence that the $43,000 Walker received from the Koch Brothers during his campaign (making them his second largest donor) and the fact that The Heritage Foundation is funded, in the millions of dollars, by the same Koch Brothers?

It’s slowly becoming quite clear. Walker is far too much of a nincompoop to have alone concocted such a surgical attack on the middle class and poor as this bill represents. The only explanation is that the governor’s actions only come on behalf of whichever Koch brother’s hand happens to be inserted up his rectum, working the puppet.

Top photo from anti-teacher rally via. For updates throughout the day follow #wiunion or #notmywi. You can reach Abe Sauer at abesauer [at] gmail.com.