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Editorial cartoon 2/7/18

As Yogi Berra said all those many years ago, "It's deja vu all over again."

That's what came to mind when Scott Walker, hoping to be re-elected to a third term as governor, announced that he wants to give parents $100 per child in the form of a tax rebate before the voters go to the polls this November.

Let's just call this out for what it is: a stupid and irresponsible way to govern. Nevertheless, you can expect the Republican legislative leaders to second this foolhardy plan.

One of the problems of getting old like me is that we've seen this nonsense play out time and time again and, I'm sad to say, it almost always ends up causing a crisis in state finances.

The first time was back in 1978 when Lee Sherman Dreyfus campaigned against Democrat Martin Schreiber, who was sitting on a healthy state budget surplus that had been built up during his and Pat Lucey's two terms over the previous eight years. Give the surplus — more than $900 million — back to the "hardworking" Wisconsin people, Dreyfus cried.

He won and, with the help of Democrats chastened by his victory, approved a 12 percent property tax credit and a two-month state income tax moratorium.

But guess what? The economy suffered a downturn during Ronald Reagan's first year as president and soon the state couldn't afford to cut the weeds along the highways. Dreyfus and the Legislature had to scramble to balance the budget, including adding a cent to the state's sales tax.

When Democrat Tony Earl became governor in 1982, he had to raise yet more taxes to balance the budget.

My, that $900 million sure would have come in handy back then.

There have been other  examples in the years since. Tommy Thompson gave money back, Jim Doyle had to replace it. You'd think that no one has the slightest understanding of the simple fact that the economy and, therefore, tax collections go through cycles.

The truth is, of course, that lawmakers do understand that. It's just easier throwing sound financial management to the winds to gain short-term political advantage. What parent with a couple of kids wouldn't like to get 200 bucks back late this summer from good old "Uncle Scott"?

Brazen charlatans like Walker gleefully jump on that political reality, putting their personal futures ahead of the state's long-term well-being, knowing that with any luck someone else will be in charge when the bills come due.

"It's not the government's money," Walker's mouthpiece Amy Hasenberg told reporters after the governor unveiled his rebate gimmick during his State of the State speech late last month. "It's the hardworking taxpayers' money."

Besides, she alibied in defense of her boss, returning surpluses is a "conservative" idea.

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Sorry to quibble, but I've always thought conservatives liked the idea of keeping money in the bank to take care of those emergencies that have a bad habit of popping up with regularity these days.

What's perplexing about Walker's dubious plan, though, is that the state already has an emergency and if Walker cared one iota about Wisconsin's well-being, he'd use that temporary surplus (and there are those like the Wisconsin Policy Forum who will tell you that under acceptable accounting practices it isn't a surplus at all) to help fix the state's crumbling roads, to boost our struggling schools (especially those in rural areas), or to serve as a buffer for his $3 billion in tax giveaways to the Foxconn corporation.

The surplus is expected to be about $400 million. The $100 per child rebate will cost about $122 million of that and will cost about another million to administer. The Department of Transportation's fund is about a billion out of whack and whoever the next governor is, he or she will have to squirm to balance the budget after Foxconn gets its share.

Not to begrudge families with minor children a few extra dollars this fall, but they will wind up paying much more than that to help their state in the long run.

Scott Walker ought to be ashamed to use the kids as a ploy to get himself re-elected.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.