In December 2010, weeks before Scott Walker dropped his self-described “bomb” eviscerating bargaining rights for public workers, the single divide that defines contemporary state politics today was already crystallizing in my mind.
The truth is that, more than ever, we in Wisconsin are split into two tiers -- wealthy conservatives who leverage their money and the influence it buys to control our policy debates -- and the rest of us.
Back then, my column was describing a series of interviews with regular people across the state by a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.
In essence, what she found in her chats in gas stations and restaurants was an almost seething resentment toward public employees, who in the interviewees’ estimation had not suffered like they had in the economic downtown and were less likely to be “working hard.”
There was no similar, visceral blame for their economic suffering directed towards the private sector, even after the Wall Street crisis and even as the income gap has grown exponentially in recent years and the comparative tax burden on the wealthiest has shrunk.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gov. Walker and legislative Republicans have rejected the long-standing principle of using progressive taxes to pay for public services such as education and roads. Instead, government, in all forms, has become the villain.
The school teacher, the cop and the college professor are demonized. But a billionaire Beloit business owner who donates $500,000 to Walker and whose primary motive, as revealed in a recent video, is to take away what few rights workers have, is not. (Her company, by the way, paid no state corporate income tax between 2005 and 2008 -- the most recent figures available -- on annual sales of $5 billion.)
She and other wealthy backers have many reasons to love Walker. To help me count the ways, I asked Jack Norman, research director for the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, a left-leaning think tank.
Under Walker, Norman says, Republicans made changes that: result in de facto tax increases for low-income working people through changes to the earned income tax credit and homestead credit; defer capital gains on some in-state investments; allow big banks and other companies to gain large tax breaks by offsetting new taxes with old losses; guarantee no reinstatement of inheritance taxes or change to capital gains exemptions; guarantee no expansion of the sales tax to services; underfund staffing to pursue tax avoiders; prevent state regulators from challenging how big corporations structure subsidiaries to avoid Wisconsin income taxes; virtually eliminate state income taxes on manufacturing and agricultural firms; and require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to approve any increases in any state tax rate.
These all disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Maybe there are some who believe in the discredited notion of “trickle down” economics. You know, always give the wealthy (sorry, I mean “job creators”) more and more and maybe middle- and low-income folks at some point benefit.
Perhaps it’s a surprise that there is polling evidence that people think Wisconsin’s wealthy should pay more in taxes as part of an overall plan to operate state government.
A question earlier this year reported that 66 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “The middle class in the state won’t catch a break unless we ask the rich to pay their fair share.” This Marquette Law School poll further showed that 78 percent of those earning less than $40,000 per year agreed with that statement; even 54 percent of those earning more than $75,000 did.
Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political scientist who directs the Marquette poll as a visiting professor, says support for higher taxes on the wealthy is part of a pattern. “I think the data are pretty supportive of that point” about wanting the wealthy to pay more, he says. “You are not just cherry-picking to come up with that.”
But he says the views of average voters are much more nuanced than what you hear from elected officials. “In the big picture there is a lot more variation of opinion on many issues than you would ever imagine from listening” to politicians, Franklin says.
“I think you would be hard-pressed to find legislators who think the rich should pay more and so should public employees,” he adds, but that is what he believes polls show voters actually want.
But when it comes to blame, it always seems to start with the public sector.
Katherine Cramer Walsh is the UW-Madison professor I referenced above who interviewed many Wisconsin citizens. “In all my conversations about causes of the great recession, maybe a handful of times” was any blame directed at the private sector even after the Wall Street crisis, she says.
“The most striking thing to me is how much those attitudes were in place when Walker tapped into them,” she says. “He made use of those attitudes. It is safe to say those attitudes have been reinforced.”
Walsh says both parties seem loath to criticize the wealthy. “It isn’t surprising that that isn’t really in the public debate just given how important money is in campaigns,” she says. “No candidate has a very strong incentive to speak out against the wealthy.”
Barry Burden, another UW-Madison political scientist and an expert in campaigns and elections, says Walker has succeeded in a paradigm shift, whatever happens in the June 5 recall election.
While there has been opposition to aspects of his agenda, Burden says, “the one place where there has really not been pushback has been on how Walker has framed the budget generally, that ‘we are broke’ as a state and that means we need to reduce spending. So all of the discussion has occurred on one side of the ledger, which mimics a little what has happened in Washington.”
“He has been completely successful; I don’t think anyone has seriously raised the idea of producing new revenues through new taxes or changing distribution or making taxes more progressive.”
Burden adds, “Whatever happens in the recall and whether he goes or stays to finish his term, I think that is his most lasting legacy, to totally change the debate from a balanced discussion of revenue and expenditures to one that only says, ‘How do we reduce spending?’ ”
Burden says many non-urban residents seem to believe that “most state spending is happening in places that don’t benefit them -- on wasteful government offices in Madison or is being thrown at problems in Milwaukee.”
He adds, “What the other side has not done a good job of is saying ‘look at all the things that public spending actually does for you, like providing roads, or fire protection, or education for your children in the UW System or on public schools.’ ”
Burden’s analysis sounds spot on.
By purchasing campaign influence, such as by giving Walker a gigantic spending advantage over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, wealthy conservatives have gained a stranglehold on all branches of government, the courts included, which is essential to assuring their unfettered election spending.
Whatever happens June 5, it’s hard to see when and how this trend changes. To me, that is bigger and sadder than anything relating to the fate of one governor.