If you watch all but a very small slice of mainstream media’s TV coverage of this week’s events in Wisconsin, or you read virtually any newspaper or newsmagazine or online forum, you’ll see this week’s events in Wisconsin framed as a battle between entrenched public-sector unions and a new governor over “budget woes.” What’s far less frequently mentioned, however, is that there really are no budget woes in Wisconsin. How does this get overlooked? Such is the power of the traditional narrative, as well as the efficacy of the right-wing spin machine which has a vested interest in pushing it into the debate as the primary frame of the issue. We’ve been hearing a great deal recently – since before last year’s midterms, in fact, about how we’re in terrible financial shape as a country, and we need to get hold of this runaway deficit that is mortgaging our kids future, blah, blah, blah… We’re accustomed to hearing it, so we don’t question it too closely. And, sadly, much of the media are lazy and not all that keen any longer about doing the real investigative work required to determine whether such claims are, in fact, true.
Oh, it’s true that the national economy is still in bad shape (despite improving slowly), and that unemployment remains high. No question about that. In fact, those very facts, which are observable with the naked eye to anyone paying attention are what help give the rest of the right-wing narrative legitimacy. Unfortunately (for all of us), the avenues Republicans pursue and the “conclusions” they reach when starting from these data points are more a matter of their own ideological preference than they are actual rigorous, defensible deductive reasoning. Republicans always – ALWAYS – say they’re the party of fiscal responsibility and discipline.
Don’t believe it for a minute, because it’s not true. Not even a little bit true.
You’ll notice, if you’re paying attention, that the GOP tend to break out that line most when either a) they’re out of power and it costs them nothing to sit back and shoot spitballs at the party trying to actually govern, or b) they’ve just re-taken power and they’re trying to pass laws which benefit either their own party politically, or their major corporate donors (these days, it’s difficult sometimes to tell between the two, so closely have they become meshed).
However, even a cursory glance at Republicans’ actual record when they’ve got the reins of power makes it very difficult indeed to believe them when they say they’re all about fiscal discipline. George W. Bush came into office with a budget surplus from the Clinton years, and left us all with the nation’s first trillion-dollar deficit. Don’t forget that; it’s important. After being swept into power on the national stage in the House or Representatives last fall, Republicans under John Boehner and Eric Cantor promised to focus “like a laser beam” on the very thing that got them elected: voters’ dissatisfaction with the state of the economy, specifically (as they always like to say it): “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Notice how many big jobs bills they’ve put out so far? Their first bills were about repealing Obama’s signature health care bill (which would actually increase the deficit and cost jobs) and among the very next few bills they brought to the House floor were not one, not two, but three separate bills attempting to make abortion – still a legal service in America – more difficult and burdensome to obtain. Jobs, my fanny. I’d send back any laser that “focused” this badly, wouldn’t you?
But back to Wisconsin: although Governor Walker and the usual GOP suspects are dragging out the shopworn “belt-tightening” meme to explain why they need to cut public sector unions’ ability to collectively bargain, it’s clear that’s not their actual motivation. How can I be sure? As I said, there is no budgetary crisis in Wisconsin. At least, there wasn’t until Governor Walker took over. And what there is right now is quite minimal indeed, especially in comparison to California or other states. When Governor Walker came into office, according to a recently-released report (pdf) from the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau (the Wisconsin equivalent of the non-partisan CBO), Wisconsin was going to be ending the 2009-11 budget biennium with a projected (albeit small) budget SURPLUS (about $120 million). That’s right, they were actually going to end the budget period with money in the bank.
Then the GOTea party – in the form of newly-elected Governor Walker and a newly-Republican-heavy state Senate – took over.
Contained within the LFB’s report linked above is the following passage:
More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees).
Over at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein translates this from arcane Wisconsin-specific budget-speak for us:
In English: The governor signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues. The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit.
Color me (not) shocked. In other words, it was three bills passed by the new Republican administration which shifted the small but real surplus to (surprise!) an equally small deficit. So much for GOP fiscal prudence. However, it’s important to keep in mind that even the deficit Wisconsin likely now has is in the low end of the millions of dollars. For a large entity like a state that deals annually in numbers well into the billions of dollars, that’s not a lot of money. Which is why Walker’s current focus on eviscerating public labor unions’ collective bargaining powers is nonsensical: partly because removing collective bargaining powers from unions doesn’t add OR subtract any money from the budget, really. As TPMDC (whose coverage of this issue has been excellent) puts it,
Unlike true austerity measures — service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money — rolling back worker’s bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own.
So why is Walker barreling ahead with it anyway? One reason, and one reason only: it is a well-planned, concerted effort to break the back of organized labor in one of the states where labor still is (comparatively) strong. If this attempt is successful here, the general form of the attack will be repeated in other states, until what remains is merely a shell of the labor movement of old. Why do this? Because, as the incomparable Rachel Maddow explains in last night’s (2/17/11) lead story, unions remain the only truly large money/volunteer player in national (and state) politics which consistently aligns with Democrats. Even more importantly than just party alignment, unions are the only player which aligns with the interests of the people against the powerful. Watch Rachel break it down here. This is absolutely essential viewing for understanding what’s really going on in Wisconsin right now, and why it’s so critical that it be defeated. Share this clip far and wide. Shout it from the rooftops. If you’re in Wisconsin, consider heading down to the statehouse in Madison and participating in the demonstrations. Or just bring some sandwiches and moral support for the demonstrators. Call your representatives and let them know you won’t stand for it, and you’ll categorically vote against anyone who supports this abominable effort. This is rubber-meets-road time, folks. It’s not the first “to the ramparts” moment for democracy in America, and it won’t be the last. But it is certainly as urgent and as serious as many previous such moments. Go do what you can.