It took them awhile, but the national media have finally noticed the Scott Walker-engineered $100 per-kid tax rebates that will be sent to about 671,000 families at a cost of $120 million a few weeks before the upcoming gubernatorial and legislative elections.
Many political observers have commented on how unusual these tax rebates are. Eric Levitz of New York magazine called it an "economically incoherent policy that's clearly intended to bribe voters into giving the governor a third term." The Washington Post did a piece on how unique the rebates are in an election year.
That's what many Wisconsin commentators have been saying since the Legislature in late March OK'd the rebates and a sales tax moratorium to coincide with school shopping at the end of summer.
I called it "a stupid and irresponsible way to govern" when Walker announced the idea in his State of the State address. He contended that Wisconsin had such a big surplus because of his prudent policies and now our "hardworking" families deserve to get "their" money back.
Meanwhile, at roughly the same time, news stories told us that the state is woefully short of transportation dollars and would not only have to push back highway projects and scheduled road maintenance, but borrow more money to boot. That's not counting the shortfalls in aid for local public education, dangerous shortages in district attorneys offices in the state's urban counties and a need to provide the Department of Natural Resources with funds to protect the state's environment. Not to mention the possibility of just putting the money away to make things a little easier when the next biennium's budget is due.
The Post's story, which was prominently displayed in the Chicago Tribune a few days ago, noted that independent economists are mystified by the policy — which, they say, has no clear, long-term economic purpose and few, if any, comparable examples.
Even Scott Drenkard, a tax expert at the right-leaning Tax Foundation think tank, was puzzled.
"This is definitely odd and unique. I haven't seen anything like it before," he said. "It's political catnip, but it's hard to see how it improves economic outcomes."
Another Tax Policy Center expert, economist Elaine Maag, told the Post reporter that "it's very difficult to understand the policy rationale here. There's not some crisis in Wisconsin where people need cash today, as opposed to when they were filing their returns a few months ago."
The story added that most tax rebates come at tax filing time, either through credits or reduced rates, but for Walker the timing wasn't right because it would have been January 2019 before taxpayers would notice. Doing it this way makes sure they will get the money before they vote in November.
The New York magazine columnist Levitz called it a cynical stunt.
"Walker could have done something much less defensible than hand out a universal child tax credit (like, for example, he could have given billions in taxpayer subsidies to a Taiwanese tech company)," he remarked tongue-in-cheek. "But, it's fair for Democrats to point out that most working-class Wisconsinites would be better off with a more generous Medicaid expansion and a better-funded public education system than they'll be with a 100 bucks for their kids' back-to-school shopping."
But, as I've pointed out so often with this current state administration, it has nothing at all to do with building the future of the state, and everything to do with getting elected.
Scott Walker is an experienced politician — indeed, it's all he's ever been — and if he can use the state treasury to help him stay in office, that's exactly what's he'll do. Someone, some day can worry about the future — just not him.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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