On Thursday May 7, the leaders of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) demonstrated a profound disdain for most people in Wisconsin. They removed 390 items from consideration in the budget process, including very popular measures like marijuana legalization, BadgerCare expansion, education opportunities, youth justice reform, taxing the rich, driver’s licenses for immigrants, and many many others. These were the JFC’s very first votes on the budget, and the way senator Howard Marklein and representative Mark Born ran the meeting showed their eagerness to rip off the people on behalf of their rich friends.
We predicted that the gerrymandered republican majority would blow off the people. Nevertheless, we went to Madison just to bear witness from the gallery. Voces de la Frontera also showed up, more than 100 deep, to defend driver’s licenses and tuition assistance for immigrants. We were all met with locked doors. Cowards on the committee closed the people out. We blocked the hallway, leaving the politicians to slink into the room through a side entrance under police guard while the halls of the capitol echoed with angry chants and speeches.
Voces’ turn out and energy were great, but unfortunately, the protest was limited and ended up mostly performative. Protesters packed the hallway outside the hearing room for an hour prior to the session, but moved to the capitol rotunda before the politicians actually gaveled in. After chanting “no hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here” and “if we don’t get in, shut it down” to an empty room, the protest retreated, allowing the meeting to proceed without distraction or disruption. Most of the chants and statements also focused on immigrant issues to the exclusion of other concerns. Voces de la Frontera leadership often imposes these limitations on their organizing.
We’d like to highlight this brief moment when the crowd took up a chant of “The rich! The rich! We gotta get rid of the rich!”. When a hundred working class people of color and their allies gesture across political affiliation at a deeper class solidarity, they strike fear into the wealthy elites that control both parties, and speak to a common bond with those who are neglected and marginalized across the state. Imagine if chants like this continued through the hearing. Born and Marklein would have to railroad through bad motions that hurt their voters over the background clamor of the crowd denouncing them and their wealthy conspirators.
While we were chanting in the hallway with Voces, WISDOM members were calling the offices of JFC majority to demand restoration of reforms in the budget. The republicans were undeterred, claiming that stripping policy items from the budget is normal. It is not. According to the WPR politics podcast (skip to 5:01) “this is not the way it has always gone” in state government.
Only about half of the provisions removed were deemed “policy” by the legislative audit bureau. Typically, policy issues get stripped throughout the budget process. For example, on the day that the JFC discusses health provisions, the majority may raise and pass a motion to remove Badgercare expansion; on the day they discuss the prison system, they might remove marijuana legalization or the handling of seventeen-year-olds as adults. They would have to face their constituents while casting each of these unpopular votes. Instead, they tore off the band aid behind closed doors, and think they can move forward painlessly.
With the hearing room’s gallery closed, capitol staff set up a TV set and some socially-distanced chairs in the rotunda balcony where we could watch video of the session. We watched a little bit, but weren’t surprised that no one else joined us to watch a bunch of old white men fuck around with their lives and futures.
The meeting itself followed an obnoxious pattern. Repeatedly, democrats pointed out that the process was anti-democratic, that the items being removed had popular support across the state, and that removing them defied the will of the people. Republicans responded that they had made their intentions clear from the start, as though that made it okay.
The video of the hearing is behind a paywall on Wisconsin Eye, but we’ve pulled out and posted the debate on this motion. For those who don’t like watching buffoons and liars do legislative process, we’ve also reconstructed a condensed iteration of the back and forth to quickly capture what passes for policy debate in this legislature. These statements are paraphrased, but accurate – watch the video to see for yourself.
Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee): The first time this committee saw 2,813 comments from the public, the co-chairs of joint finance had already called for the removal of 390 items from the governor’s budget. We weren’t even done listening to the people before this motion went forward.
Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam): It wasn’t a secret that we’re setting the budget back to basics. Senator Marklein and I, speaker Vos and senate leader LeMaheiu said it publicly hundreds of times. I’ve done television interviews saying that we’re going to do this.
John Erpenbach (D-Madison): Evan isn’t saying that what you are doing is a surprise. We knew you were going to do it. We’re saying that doing it is still wrong and undemocratic.
Born: Well, he hurt my feelings. I am sure some of these things will be put back into the budget, or will be done by individual legislation. I’m still getting public comments from people in my district. I talked to one guy at Menards in Beaver Dam the other day…
Erpenbach: The budget impacts everyone from the state. Members of this committee are supposed to take the views of the whole state into account. That’s why we had all those public hearings. I strongly encourage you to get out of your district and take the needs of all Wisconsinites into account. Consider trying the Menards in Baraboo?
Howard Marklein (R-Dodgeville): Time for debate is over, let’s move to vote. Okay – 12 in my party to 4 in yours, the motion passes.
Senator LaTonya Johnson and representative Greta Neubauer joined Goyke and Erpenbach, but focused more on the issues than the process. Meanwhile, other republicans joined their leadership in talking slowly, saying little, and pretending not to understand what the big deal is. It may be that they have an incredibly poor understanding of the democratic process. Erpenbach certainly sounded like a high school teacher explaining the basics to them. More likely, republicans simply do not believe in popular sovereignty. Born especially spoke like an abusive father or husband (“I told you how it was going to be, why are you complaining?”). He seems uninterested in the idea of other people having agency or any say at all.
The most absurd thing is that the republican authority comes not from voters or the people, but from the corrupt misapplication of arcane bureaucratic rules. The 2010 map-drawing process was a power-grab by lawyers and pencil-neck paper-pushing nerds. It was incredibly effective, but really, paper-thin. Robin Vos’ authority as assembly speaker is not backed by substance, but by slim partisan majorities in the courts and the politeness of democrats.
This scheme should be incredibly fragile. Seventy percent of the state wants BadgerCare expansion. Majorities favor marijuana legalization and decarceration. People travelled across the state to testify passionately in favor of education funding, prison reform, environment, fair maps, and countless other issues that these delicate tyrants removed from consideration on Thursday morning. If the people of Wisconsin came together and rose in real, material resistance, then Marklein, Vos, and Born would be driven out of power within hours, if not minutes. Instead, they seem intent on repeating the process, redrawing crooked maps to calcify their flimsy authority.
This is why we are calling on Governor Evers to bypass the legislature and deliver on his campaign and “people’s budget” promises through executive action. You can sign and share our petition. We know that politicians don’t cave to petition signatures alone, so we are also pushing democrats to break with party leadership. Contact elected officials from your districts and tell them to join the call for action.
Measures removed from consideration that didn’t get as much attention from the democrats, but that may be more strategic to discuss are the ones that began to address Wisconsin’s yawning wealth disparity. The top 1 percent in this state made 19 times the average worker in 2017. Growing inequality is a nation-wide problem, and while Wisconsin as a whole is below the national average, parts of the state, including republican strongholds, are well above average.
Speaking to this hoarding of resources by the rich might actually overcome gerrymandering to drive majorities against republicans. Our Wisconsin Revolution recently detailed tax reforms that were quietly stripped out of the budget. They state: “When you total up all the state and local taxes we all pay, the wealthiest 1% pay the lowest overall tax rate… There were proposals in the budget to do something about this injustice. An obscure tax break known as MAC benefiting a few thousand of the richest people in Wisconsin was to be scaled down so the super-wealthy would pay more than $487 million in taxes they are currently escaping… The finance committee rescued it. Changing current tax policy shielding capital gains from taxation would have brought in $350 million. Republicans in charge of the finance committee nixed that proposal as well.”
Like most republican districts, the majority of Marklein and Born’s voters are working class people. They believe in core principles like one person one vote, and everyone paying their fair share. The republican party uses culture war politics and racial resentment to mask the fact that they are hurting the majority of their constituents to benefit the wealthiest people in the state.
However sophisticated their right wing propaganda machine might be, fucking over 90% of people for the benefit of the wealthiest 10% is not a sustainable political practice. Those numbers just don’t add up. We can’t wait for democrats to rally around class issues, though. They have their own wealthy donors to repay. Instead, we are looking forward to the day that poor and working people from Milwaukee get together with poor and working people across the state and take action. We gotta get rid of the rich.