Is the Wisconsin Budget Like Obama's Health Care Reform? Well, Kinda!

by Abe Sauer

“Now maybe the Liberals know how the Conservatives felt last year when the Democrat Congress rammed Obamacare through (without even reading it).”

That comment, by “JamVee” on a Reuters story about last Saturday’s near-100,000-strong protest crowd in Madison, perfectly sums up what has become the predominant arguing position of pro-Walker conservatives. This “shoe on the other foot” defense of Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill stinks of revenge, not reason. But while there are many more solid reasons that the two bills are different, there really are ways in which the two pieces of legislation are the same — and, in one sense, they’re exactly the same.

Let’s dorm-room brainstorm the similarities between health care reform and Wisconsin’s budget repair:

• Both bills were signed despite (legitimate) polling data showing a majority of Americans opposed the legislation.

• Both bills were signed with a pen labeled “Elections Have Consequences,” the kind of “water is wet” dystopian buffoonery that will soon give way to “Recall Elections Have Consequences,” and, inevitably, “Consequences Have Consequences.”

• Both bills will see court challenges, and in both instances those challenges will be dismissed as the last-ditch effort of “sore losers.”

• Both bills ostensibly address honest problems with the American economy, though neither one honestly addresses those problems.

• Both bills are works of political patronage and their respective passages were more about building the foundations of future fund-raising than about solving the average American’s problems.

And, most importantly, the core details of both bills were drowned out by campaigns of passionate resistance and misinformation. (No, Walker’s bill does not sell puppies for $1 to medical research.) Sure, the Tea Party-oriented people were pretty damn quiet when George Bush was in the global strip club making it rain with our children’s financial future, but then, the currently incensed public employee unions weren’t so incensed when their brothers and sisters in private unions were being snuffed out one after one. One International Brotherhood of Electric Workers member I spoke to at the Capitol, on the day the bill passed, put is like this: “They may not have been there for us, but we’re here for them.”

What JamVee’s argument speaks to is not the bills themselves but to the perceived legislative process in an era of political sport. The content of the bills is beside the point, and the only thing that matters is “We won. They lost.” And why not? Because the only legitimate way in which President Obama’s heath care reform bill and Governor Walker’s budget repair bill are similar is that, in the end, both are huge paydays for corporations. Both the health care reform bill and Wisconsin’s budget bill serve one main purpose, to grind everyday Americans together like rocks, until the gold inside can be extracted.

It’s noteworthy that Walker himself has been quietly goosing this throwback to the heath care outrages as a way to energize his base. On March 14, Governor Walker put the jumper cables on the @scottwalker Twitter account, not used since Dec. 27, to warn his thousands of followers “Obama pol org is active in WI. We need ur help. Sign up @ 2 vol or donate now. Pass it on.” (Since the inauguration, Walker has used @GovWalker for all communication). It’s a lazy spin move Walker has used before. During the primary election, his mailers were less directly related to his challenger than to Nancy Pelosi.

Much has been made of Walker busting up the unions as both a personal vendetta and a way to choke the Democratic party. But the true goal of dismantling the unions is removing the roadblock to privatization. Much like the CEO of Twitter, Walker and Republican leaders are asking themselves: Here we have something a lot of people use. How the hell can it be monetized?

Removing union strength, capping property taxes and defunding schools while upping support for charter schools, privately-supplied online education and the voucher system (all of which Walker’s first three months of legislation has done) creates an environment where an untapped resource (education) can be capitalized. A philosophical side benefit of privatized education for Walker is the elimination of sex education. Walker has long opposed anything beyond abstinence-only sex ed, including treatment of teens with STDs.

(Sidenote: One of the heretofore unexamined reasons Walker’s recall might stumble is his vicious anti-abortion stance, including opposing it even in instances where it would save the life of the mother. Wisconsin currently has a standing law outlawing abortion that is just waiting for the feds to allow it to be constitutional.)

It is already well known that Walker has proposed the sale of the state’s power plants to private industry, guaranteeing some lucky (no-bid) investor nearly 40 facilities with a built-in population of monthly payments. Those facilities service Wisconsin’s prisons, a population that won’t be getting any smaller after Walker committed himself to ending one of the state’s early release programs and upping funding to find all those dirty old men at one of the 20,000-plus IP addresses preying on “our children.”

Walker proposes to break the University of Wisconsin-Madison off from the state system and more or less privatize it. Such privatization will cause tuition to soar. It’s a transition many at California’s UC-Berkeley, often cited in conversation as Madison’s philosophical sibling, are already regretting. “Enhanced autonomy for this unique institution” is the call of a confederacy of front organizations like Badger Advocates which lead to out-of-state funders like the foundation of Harry Bradley, who, along with the Koch brothers’ multimillionaire father Fred, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society. (Yes, today’s Koch brothers did not organically grow into their extreme right activism any more than Jaden Smith got the lead in Karate Kid from a casting call… or any more than the two Kochs pulled themselves up by any bootstraps. Wingtips have no straps.)

While the hullaballoo over the union measures was going on, the Wisconsin senate voted 18 to 0 on March 2 to confirm former one-term Republican state senator and treasurer of the state Republican Party, Cathy Stepp, as the head of the Department of Natural Resources. Appointing Stepp to oversee the DNR is a little like appointing Fox News head Roger Ailes to oversee National Public Radio. Stepp, a real estate developer and critic of the DNR before the appointment, once mocked the agency as being “pro garter snakes.” She was given a basement-dwelling rating by the Sierra Club for her environmental action while a senator. Stepp does not have a college degree in anything related to natural resource management because she does not have a college degree. Stepp and Walker have said the DNR under Stepp will become more business-friendly and the agency has already moved to streamline processes for investors to find a way to monetize Wisconsin’s natural resources.

Stepp’s confirmation came a month and a half after Walker “reorganized” the Department of Commerce in a public-private “hybrid” called the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. The new Corporation will have no ability to regulate commerce and will have a 12 member board consisting of Walker and 11 of his appointees. Walker said the move meant that the state was “sending a very clear message that we’re going to merge the public and private sector together, pushing for economic development” and that the new “sole focus” of the agency “will be on promoting commerce, not in regulating it, not on confusing it.”

The uncreative pol looks at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka “food stamps”) and sees just poor people. Walker and his supporters looks at this group and see profit. Walker will move the administration for the program from the county to the state level, closing regional centers, where people could visit in person to get aid and ask questions, in exchange for a program run by a computer and phone center, because if there is one thing people having difficulty accessing food do have, it’s high speed internet. (In all fairness, former Democratic Gov. Doyle pushed for this too.)

But that’s just saving money. What about making money?

Walker will also move to privatize whatever part of the assistance program is not nailed down by the feds. While federal law mandates state employees determine medical assistance and food stamp program eligibility, it says nothing about administering those programs. Walker’s plan makes room for over 1,200 private “vendors” to administer the programs. This privatization was also something the Doyle administration toyed with. How did that go? The Cap Times:

“The state is under a corrective action plan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of the wait times for servicing food stamp applications at the Enrollment Services Center… A recent state study also found the vendor run [i.e., privatized] center has a higher incidence of errors in handling applications… The Enrollment Services Center had an error rate of more than 3.2 percent, compared to 2.4 percent at the state-run Milwaukee County center, and 1.3 percent in the offices handled by the counties.”

Essentially, what Walker is doing is peeing in the soup at the state-run restaurant to make its offerings so unpalatable that residents will rightly decide to go and eat at the private dive, paying extra for the privilege of getting urine-less broth.

The privatization of food stamps makes for good walking-around money, but pensions are where Bahama vacation home money is. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the health of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) pension (in 2010 the Pew Center rated Wisconsin a “solid performer,” one of only four states with pensions funded at over 95 percent), Walker’s bill quietly directs state agencies to examine the benefits of shifting the current WRS system to a 401k-like free market system. It has been pointed out that there are laws protecting plans like the WRS from tinkering. Of course, Walker’s bill has already addressed similar roadblocks with state Medicaid programs by granting himself and the joint finance committee unprecedented powers to enact legislation superseding existing laws (essentially blazing a path to lawmaking minus the legislative process). Liberal crybabies at One Wisconsin Now described the move as “turning the governor’s office into the state’s largest lobbyist waiting room.” Meanwhile, this switch to a 401k-style system for Wisconsin’s pension was shrugged off as “one of those fiscal inevitabilities” by the head of the Madison-based Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, Todd Berry.

(Reader Note: Todd Berry has been an abominable media slut during the Wisconsin debate, with hardly any reporter questioning the motives of the “non-partisan” Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, despite the organization’s hate for an apostrophe and fact that its board of directors is made up of well known Republican supporters, including Gov. Tommy Thompson’s former administration secretary, Mark Bugher. Despite that every media institution from left to right unhinges its jaw and writes “non-partisan” before repeating the latest end times-sounding statistic from Todd Berry, the current WTA board of directors has donated over $385,000 to political candidates, $358,000 of which went to Republicans. Calling that bipartisan is a little like calling yourself bisexual because you once saw somebody of the same sex naked in the shower.

It’s a shame because the WTA has been around since the 1930s and was, for many decades, a respectable organization of concerned, if jackass, tightwads — in 1958, for example, the WTA came out against the use of tax dollars at Wisconsin vocational schools for those seeking not strictly-vocational skills like home economics. But that has all fallen apart as it became a water carrier not for individual Wisconsin taxpayers, but for corporate taxpayers. The WTA routinely cites how abominable the state is for taxes, while ignoring the absence of all the fees (not “taxes”) paid in other states. In reality, Wisconsin was ranked in the middle of all American for tax burden in 2010, a year before Walker took office. That the WTA’s opinions are reported as “nonpartisan” today is one of the top five exhibits of journalism failure in the state. Tragically, even PolitiFact has used Berry as a source without questioning WTA’s motives.)

While it might seem that the current battle in Wisconsin is just an extension of a now three-decades long piffle between liberals and conservatives, it’s more than that. Current Wisconsin events, even if many of the players don’t realize it, is a core fight over what America is. It’s the latest battle in a protracted fight in maybe the most important ideological state in America’s post-Revolution political history. It’s the fight for the “Wisconsin Idea,” which in part called for the states “laboratory of democracy” to create “well-constructed legislation aimed at benefiting the greatest number of people.” One of the primary movers of the Wisconsin Idea was state icon and progressive architect “Fighting” Bob La Follette. La Follette was the politician kids dream about being before they meet their first lobbyist with a wad of cash. As governor, he backed a workers’ comp program, women’s suffrage and a minimum wage. If you are a wage earner today in America, you owe Bob La Follette. As Wisconsin governor he “repaired” the state budget deficit with a moderate tax on corporations.

For all Walker’s hate of government and taxes, his only job since he was 26 has been in government and his father was a baptist preacher in Delavan and likely paid few taxes, income, property or otherwise. The interesting thing is that Walker is just a proxy for a century-long state battle. The John Birch society, co-founded by the father of the Koch brothers, who bequeathed the wealth to his sons who used it to underwrite Governor Walker’s administration, is headquartered in Grand Chute, 100 miles from Madison. The Heritage Foundation, that gave Walker the ideological speaking points, was founded by Racine, WI native and UW-Madison (and Milwaukee Sentinel alum), Paul Weyrich. Eric O’Keefe, who founded the Koch-funded intelligence arm of the Tea Party, the Sam Adams Alliance, and launched the CIA black ops-like free-market local candidate training program American Majority, lives in Spring Green, WI.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s secretary of state has announced that he will not honor Walker’s request to publish the new union-destroying bill until the last possible day, March 25. And who is the secretary of state? He is Doug La Follette, the great-grandnephew of Bob La Follette.

And in the current climate, all Wisconsinites, including Walker, must thank La Follette. During his first appearance in New York City, 99 years ago, La Follette began his national campaign to maximize the power of the populace. From La Follette’s address to Carnegie Hall, January 1912, as reported by The New York Times:

“Propositions favored by the progressive are the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.”

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.