On March 21st, Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir (R-5th District) held a “listening session” at the Brookfield Safety Building to get voter feedback on Governor Scott Walker’s latest budget.
The session was held in a large auditorium. Town hall meetings have been crowded lately, and “woke” citizens are showing up, not just for meetings with their national representatives, but for their state legislators as well. Vukmir was accompanied that evening by State Assemblyman Rob Hutton (R-13th District) and Assemblyman Dale Kooyenga (R-14th District).
The discussion was mostly polite but occasionally heated, as the governor’s opponents stood up and attempted to contradict the Republican legislators on everything from the State’s record on job creation to the private-school voucher program. A lifelong public school teacher started out calm when he said, “Teachers are economically terrified right now,” and ended up shouting that he’d like to see the lawmakers on the dais take a fifteen percent cut in their salaries – as some Wisconsin teachers have.
Ann Rohrer from Tosa talked about the UW-segregated fees opt-out in the governor’s budget. It allows students at UW who don’t approve of things like Black Lives Matter and LBGT organizations to “opt out” of paying segregated fees while still receiving the services of their choice. Rohrer said that this creates a “free-rider program” and “strips essential services,” like the campus rape crisis center, mental health center, and intramural sports programs, of needed funds.
Vukmir, whose default stance is support for Walker, smoothly replied that she was “inclined to support the current proposal by the governor” because the opting out of paying segregated fees is “an issue of freedom for people.”
You know, the same way it’s an issue of freedom to deny women funding for contraceptives in their insurance plans if they happen to work for a boss whose religion says contraception is a sin. It used to be that religious freedom meant freedom to worship at the church or temple of your choice. Today, according to some conservatives, it means freedom to inflict your religious views on others.
Freedom. It’s a word that our ideologically driven Wisconsin conservatives love to bandy about. They use it anytime there’s something they don’t want to fund.
An interesting moment occurred at the listening session when an elderly woman with a soft voice stood up and started talking about the Federalist Papers. The Republicans on the dais listened politely, even reverently, though no one else in the crowd could hear her and not many had a clue what she was talking about.
But it’s time the rest of us figured out what these Federalist Papers are. Because so much of the right-wing’s notion of “freedom” – and so many of their excuses for limiting the individual freedoms of everyone else – is based on this group of eighteenth-century essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay under the pseudonym Publius.
The Federalist Papers are the motivation for the constitutional “originalism” of the newly appointed justice of the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch and his precursor Antonin Scalia. They provide the intellectual basis for the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has had a hand in re-writing so many of Wisconsin’s employment laws. They provide the intellectual underpinnings for the work of the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity. And you better believe the Koch Brothers have read them.
And because they were written by founders of the republic and because Madison can claim authorship of our sacred Constitution, the Federalist Papers have more of a kick than even Ayn Rand for some conservatives. At least, they serve equally broadly as a justification for the accumulation of wealth at the upper strata of American society, which is what most Republican “policy” is meant to ensure.
James Madison, Noam Chomsky writes in Requiem for the American Dream: the 10 Principles of Wealth Creation, believed that the “major concern . . . of any decent society” had to be to ‘“protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,’” i.e., the rabble, the rank and file, the average citizen. According to Chomsky, Madison believed that unless the system were designed to prevent it, “the majority of the poor would get together and . . . organize to take away the property of the rich.” This was Madison’s fear as our nation was being birthed, and why, Chomsky says, “the structure of the system . . . was designed to prevent the danger of democracy.” In other words, to prevent the rabble from claiming a share of the wealth.
That certainly explains some of Neil Gorsuch’s pro-corporate, anti-worker rulings as an appellate judge, and it explains the whole bogus project of constitutional “originalism.”
“Federalism” in Right-to-Work Wisconsin
This also shines a light on what’s been going in Wisconsin since 2010 – the redistricting to ensure Republican dominance of the legislative process, the starkly anti-worker lawmaking that has contributed to middle-class stagnation, and the pro-rich-people tax breaks. All of it done in the name of “freedom.” Freedom and “federalism” are two concepts that seem inextricably linked in the conservative mind.
A case in point is the recent passage of Wisconsin Senate Bill 3, which Governor Walker signed into law in DePere, above a placard that extolled the “Freedom to Work.” The new law prohibits “state and local governments from requiring a bidder on a public works project to enter into an agreement with a labor organization.” Or even from “considering, as a factor” whether or not the bidder “has entered into an agreement with a labor organization.”
“Freedom to Work” is, therefore, a bit of an abbreviation. Walker’s sign should have read: “Freedom to Work for Less Money and with Fewer Safety Precautions and Not as Much Training.”
But of course, it’s hard to put all that on a sign.
The legislation Walker signed into law the day after Easter was supported by the usual suspects: Americans for Prosperity, Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the almighty WMC (Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce).
The bill was proposed – some would even say “authored” though that is in dispute – by Leah Vukmir and Rob Hutton.
SB3 is an interesting example of the harsh ideological divisions in Wisconsin, with freedom-extolling Republicans once again limiting the freedom of counties and municipalities to make their own decisions. (If you don’t believe me, try proposing a regulation to your town council banning plastic bags from supermarkets – such a ban would now be against the law in Wisconsin.) Opposing the bill, besides labor organizations, were the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Counties Association, and Dane County.
Public hearings on SB3 took place last winter, and the bill was debated on the floor of the State Senate early last February. Wisconsin has 33 state senators, 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Voting on the bill was strictly along party lines with one Democratic abstention. In the debate on the senate floor prior to the vote, State Senator Chris Larson (D-7th District), claimed that SB3 was “another piece of legislation imported by a special interest group by the name of ALEC, the . . . equivalent of Match.com for corporations and politicians.” In other words, the corporate donations go into the pockets of politicians, and the ALEC bills come pouring out of the state legislatures.
ALEC, said Larson, has been a “treasure trove of bills” that do nothing but “reward corporations that would rather pay poverty wages than support Wisconsin’s hard-working families. SB3 is a clear example of favoring the rich over our working neighbors. The collusion between some legislators and alt-right think tanks and their corporate donors has never been stronger.”
Larson was stretching a point when he referred to ALEC as an “alt-right” think tank. ALEC, with its heavy reliance on high-minded euphemism, is hardly in the same category as white-supremacist provocateurs like Breitbart News.
For whatever reason, Larson’s mention of ALEC irritated Leah Vukmir who defended the organization while attacking the purity of Larson’s own vote. In a tone dripping with sarcasm, she said, “Imagine that, ALEC, an organization that believes in free markets, limited government and federalism [language that could be lifted straight from ALEC’s Web site], supporting a bill about open contracting. Wow. Gosh, that’s so far-fetched. You know, uh, I support this legislation, not because I’m a member of ALEC, not because I’m the past national chairman of ALEC [she is and she was]. I support it because it is good public policy. And you know, Senator from the 7th, I wouldn’t accuse you of being opposed to this legislation because you’ve received support from labor unions like the Teamsters and AFL-CIO, if you have . . . ”
For the record, Chris Larson has received a whopping 100 bucks from Teamsters Joint Council 39, according to the Campaign Finance Database published by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Total contributions from organized labor to Larson amount to $5,375.
Leah Vukmir, according to the same source, received $24,717 in campaign contributions from the construction industry in Wisconsin, and another $11,217.90 from specifically road construction companies during her 2014 State Senate run.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, construction wages in Wisconsin typically undergo modest increases of about 1.8 percent per year. In 2012, the average wage of a construction laborer was between $17.60 and $18.60 per hour, or about $38,680 per year. By 2016, that hourly wage had gone up to between $18.70 and $19.93 per hour.
In 2012, Wisconsin operating engineers – heavy equipment operators – made between $25.19 and $25.52 per hour or $53,080 per year. In 2016, heavy equipment operators averaged between $26.43 and $27.71 per hour or $57,650 annually. These figures apply to both union and non-union wages.
But these construction wage-earners, and anyone in Wisconsin who’s earning a paycheck, carry a disproportionate amount of the income tax burden.
According to Tamarine Cornelius of the Wisconsin Budget Project, writing in Urban Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s wealthiest one percent pays 6.2 percent of every dollar earned in taxes, while middle-income Wisconsinites, like those construction workers, pay 10.2 percent of their income in taxes.
State wages are virtually stagnant relative to the cost of living, and likely to remain so now that Wisconsin is a Right to Work state, and at the same time, Wisconsin’s richest citizens, with their disproportionate influence in Madison, are making sure that the tax burden is shifted to the already overstressed middle class.
While Wisconsin’s wealthy lean back, our public schools are under-funded, social services are getting cut, and some insurance companies are charging Wisconsin customers more because of our state’s potholed roads and highways.
As far as the roads are concerned, the only idea the Governator can come up with is to borrow money and pass the burden of road repair on to future generations. As far as the rest of the budget goes, it’s all about cut, cut, cut. During the 2016 State of the State address, I was stunned by Walker’s shameless bragging about how many CNA jobs have been created since he took office.
Funny, I think Wisconsin used to have a little more to brag about. But that was before Republicans cut the University of Wisconsin’s budget by $250 million so Walker’s big donors could be free of having to pay onerous state income taxes. Wisconsin’s brain drain may be legendary, the state may be last in the Midwest in new job creation and entrepreneurship, but hell, at least we’re not running out of certified nursing assistants any time soon.
Think about that the next time you hear one of our Wisconsin Republicans bloviating about “freedom.”