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The Wisconsin Uprising

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Step one: Create your own budget crisis by giving out tax cuts to the privileged.

Step two: "Solve" your crisis by attacking teachers and other public servants.

(Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.)

That's how Republicans do it these days, folks. Certainly, that's the play being called by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose attempts to push forward sweeping anti-union legislation in his state have become infamous in the past week.

The single most important idea to keep in mind about the situation is that this is not about balancing budgets. It is a power grab.

Walker's move is part of a calculated effort to undermine what's left of the most significant institutional counterbalance to the ever-weightier power of corporations: organized labor. Other newly minted Republican governors are making similar moves, with at least a half dozen attempting to pass so-called "right to work" legislation. But I don't think any have been quite as audacious or disingenuous as Walker.

What makes the Wisconsin situation so clearly two-faced is the combination of tax handouts for business with an assault on public employees. A post by Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo does an excellent job of explaining:

[Walker's] broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau--the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office--concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

Beutler quotes an editorial in the Madison Capital Times:

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state's budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance--Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit--it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

The same editorial describes Walker's tax policies as

schemes that redirect state tax dollars to wealthy individuals and corporate interests that have been sources of campaign funding for Walker's fellow Republicans and special-interest campaigns on their behalf. As Madison's Democratic state Rep. Brett Hulsey notes, the governor and legislators aligned with him have over the past month given away special-interest favors to every lobby group that came asking, creating zero jobs in the process "but increasing the deficit by more than $100 million."

That Walker's move is both a power grab and an attack on working people is hardly a novel idea. But it is one that we should constantly reiterate in the face of conservatives who insist that they are making "hard choices" in the name of "fiscal responsibility." Headline writers routinely refer to the situation in Wisconsin as a " budget battle," yet that description is really a subterfuge.

Don Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin's School for Workers, writes about what Walker's bill would actually do:

Disguised as a bill to fix a shortfall in the current budget, this bill would:

-- Abolish public sector collective bargaining on all topics except wages. There would be no more negotiating leaves of absence, health and safety, discipline for just cause, or anything else. Negotiated wage increases would be capped at CPI; in other words, no real negotiation could occur.

-- Prohibit public employers from deducting union dues via payroll deduction. This measure is one of several that demonstrate the bill's true intent, because it represents no savings whatsoever for the taxpayer.

-- Require all unionized units to hold annual decertification elections. Again, this relates to the budget in no way whatsoever, and is the most blatant example of the ideological agenda behind this bill.

-- Impose higher employee costs for health care and pensions for state employees.

-- Institute "right to work" for public employees.

As someone with family roots in Wisconsin, and with extended family members who have served as diligent and dedicated teachers in public schools, I haven't taken kindly to Rush Limbaugh and Tea Party folks calling them " parasites." But I've been proud to see teachers, supporters, allied union members, and students fight back with a series of large-scale protests. Gerry Canavan linked to this most excellent photo of demonstrators turning the Wisconsin State Capitol into a full-up Thunderdome. Even the Packers have gotten in on the act, expressing their strong support for public employees.

Evidence of people in the Wisconsin uprising taking inspiration from the momentous pro-democracy protests in Egypt that recently ousted a dictator has been frequently noted. Those gathering in Madison dubbed their governor "Hosni" Walker and called on every person in Wisconsin to " Fight Like An Egyptian."

Interestingly, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) also picked up on this theme, quipping, "It's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days." The difference is, he said this disapprovingly, as if the events in Egypt were a regrettable occurrence.

That type of attitude pretty much speaks for itself.