As if big government really ever goes away

M.D. Kittle:

Gov.-elect Tony Evers made a lot of promises on the campaign trail – promises the Republican-controlled Legislature likely won’t cash. 

Still, as head of the executive branch Evers could have the ability to go around the Legislature in a number of instances, and he will hold one of the most powerful veto pens in the nation. 

The Democrat offered few plans, and even fewer details, on the trail. But many of Evers’ ideas would expand government, excise landmark reforms, and generally force Wisconsin taxpayers to depart with more of their hard-earned money. 

He campaigned on a commitment to ensure state government is a “responsible steward of taxpayer dollars,” but if Evers gets even some of what he wants the cost of the incoming governor’s promises could really add up. 

On Foxconn 

Foxconn could be the Democrat’s first fight. Candidate Evers has often criticized the state’s economic development deal with the Taiwan-based high tech manufacturer. The contract offers $2.85 billion in state tax incentives in exchange for Foxconn delivering on its pledge to build a massive manufacturing complex in Racine County that is expected to create as many as 13,000 jobs. 

Final terms of the unprecedented agreement were hammered out by the man Evers narrowly beat in this month’s general election, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his economic development agency — the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC). 

Evers has talked in more nebulous terms about holding “Foxconn’s feet to the fire.” What that will mean for the largest economic development deal of its kind in U.S. history remains to be seen. There is debate over what regulation-friendly Evers could do to existing and future state permits for the project. 

State. Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) said Republicans aren’t taking anything for granted. 

“It’s something we need to explore very seriously to make sure such a great opportunity for economic development continues down the path,” Craig told MacIver News Service last week on the Jay Weber Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN.

It sounds like protecting the Foxconn deal is on the table for a proposed special legislative session in the coming weeks, before the new governor steps in. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has been the lead voice of Republican resistance to any changes Evers contemplates on the Foxconn deal. Vos’ district is the home of the production campus, a project expected to cost $10 billion. 

“We are not going to allow Tony Evers to come in and screw up the Foxconn package,” Vos told the Racine Journal Times. “I will never let that happen. It is too important to our region, it is too important to our state and I feel like we already, in good faith, negotiated and worked on this deal with one of the world’s largest corporations … (B)ecause we had an election doesn’t mean Wisconsin is going back on its word.” 

But the governor-elect holds administrative powers that are not the domain of the Legislature. Evers could use that authority to bring back more red tape at the Department of Natural Resources, among other oversight agencies.

“I can’t give you a guarantee that that project won’t be impacted by an executive branch that wants to do it harm,” Craig said. 

WEDC in the crosshairs 

Evers has pledged to go after the way Wisconsin has done business with business under Walker, whose oft-repeated slogan is that the Badger State is, “Open for business.” The incoming governor has said he would disband the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the quasi-public agency Walker and the Republican Legislature created to replace the old state Department of Commerce. WEDC has had its problems, but the Commerce Department was riddled with cronyism and bureaucratic failures. 

Craig said several conservative lawmakers ran in 2010 and ’11 on getting rid of the old Commerce Department. 

“We need to make sure we don’t go back toward that type of system where you have cozy relationships that was constantly occurring between political allies (and) using tax dollars to manipulate how the economy works,” the senator said. 

Medicaid money and lawsuits

Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, also a Democrat, have each said they would end Wisconsin’s involvement in a multi-state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act. Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel has helped lead the litigation that argues that Obamacare failed to meet constitutional muster once Congress ended the tax penalty for the individual mandate.

Schimel has taken aim at what he describes as Obamacare’s irrational design,” arguing that it “wreaks havoc on health insurance markets.”

“I bring this challenge to Obamacare because, as Wisconsin’s attorney general, I swore to uphold the rule of law and protect our state from overreaching and harmful actions from the federal government,” Schimel said in February upon filing the lawsuit. 

For Schimel, the litigation raises a key constitutional question. For Kaul, it appears the constitution is secondary to protecting the left’s sacred – and failed – health care system.

Health care was the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds this campaign season, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released late last month. 

Evers has said Wisconsin should take the “free” federal money under Obamacare to expand Medicaid coverage in the state. Walker has repeatedly rejected the funds because they come with a lot of regulatory strings and will end up mandating the state cover at least 10 percent of the additional spending. 

The inconvenient truth for progressives is that expanding Medicaid has been a costly proposition for taxpayers, costing some truly in need the medical benefits they could use. Exhibit A: Minnesota.

While liberals like to cheer the Minnesota model of Medicaid expansion, the Gopher State’s utopia fable fails to take into account how much taxpayer cash Wisconsin’s neighbor to the west had to pump into the system to prop up Minnesota liberals’ full embrace of Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion.  

Premiums headed into 2017 were expected to increase by a staggering 50-67 percent, as opposed to Wisconsin’s 16 percent hike. As a result, Minnesota was forced to come up with $300 million to bail out 123,000 struggling Minnesotans who did not qualify for federal Obamacare subsidies.

The bloodletting of Minnesota taxpayers didn’t stop there. The following year, the Minnesota legislature spent an additional $542 million to establish a reinsurance program to hold down costs. Wisconsin recently enacted a similar reinsurance program, but the cost to state taxpayers is expected to be a fraction of that, about $34 million. Premiums are expected go down an average of 3.5 percent thanks to the program, which garnered federal approval earlier this year. Walker administration officials are confident the bill can be paid for by finding savings in the state’s behemoth Medicaid program.

Wisconsin’s new governor, it appears, will be leading the charge to grab up the federal cash, and the ever-increasing tab will go to Badger State taxpayers. 

 $15. Minimum. 

As MacIver News Service reported last month, Evers backs Big Labor’s push for a $15 minimum wage in Wisconsin. Standing next to avowed socialist Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally, Evers upped the rhetorical ante, asserting that Wisconsin would be “going to $15 an hour minimum. Minimum.” He later said he could see the increase in place by the end of his first term. 

Liberals insist raising Wisconsin’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage (the same as the federal minimum rate) is long overdue. Industry experts and a growing body of research warn a hike would increase consumer prices and diminish economic opportunity for younger and low-skilled workers, the very people Democrats insist they are trying to help. Doing so could ultimately hamper Wisconsin’s booming economy, which has recorded historically low unemployment and rising wages for the better part of a year. Ultimately, a slowdown would take a bite out of the state’s tax revenue. 

The Legislature, powered by huge Republican majorities, isn’t likely to support a minimum wage increase, and certainly not the Fight for $15’s call to double Wisconsin’s minimum wage. 

Boosting education spending

It’s not surprising that Evers, the superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction, would propose a big boost in public education spending. The long-time bureaucrat has never met a school spending increase he didn’t like. What Evers would like to see is a $1.4 billion increase for Wisconsin schools. That’s a 10 percent raise in school funding, more than doubling Walker’s $639 million increase in the current two-year budget — the largest ed budget increase in state history.

Evers campaigned on returning Wisconsin’s school funding system to mid-1990s levels, meaning a fuller commitment from the state. He claims that his plan won’t cost more, but with a $15.4 billion biennial spending proposal it’s hard to imagine how taxpayers wouldn’t take a hit. 

Prison release

Perhaps to placate the left’s increasingly demanding social justice warriors, Evers has expressed his goal of cutting in half Wisconsin’s prison population. During a primary debate, the candidate called it a “goal worth accomplishing.” Evers backs opening the cell door to “nonviolent” offenders, but to achieve a 50 percent reduction experts say some of Wisconsin’s violent prisoners would have to be cut loose. 

Big Labor’s governor

Unions have contributed heavily to the Democrat’s bid for the governor’s seat, and it would appear Evers will reward that support. In his campaign literature, the governor-elect said he will work to, “Repeal changes (Republicans) made in Wisconsin’s prevailing wage laws that simply take money out of Wisconsin’s workers’ pockets.”

Wisconsin’s previous prevailing wage statute, which tied wages on taxpayer-funded construction projects to inflated rates paid by unions, was repealed for local projects in the 2015-17 state budget in a compromise. Walker signed legislation last year that repealed the union-led, artificial wages for state projects. The changes allow markets to set wage rates for local construction projects, saving taxpayers from the well-documented cost overruns.

Big labor wants a reversal on another workplace law, and Evers sounds like he will do his best to oblige. In 2015, Wisconsin became the 25th right-to-work state in the nation when Walker signed the worker freedom legislation into law. 

Evers opposes the law, which prohibits private-sector companies from imposing compulsory union membership and dues as a condition of employment. Three and a half years later, some unions appear to be disregarding or down-right violating protections granted, as MacIver News Service investigations have uncovered.

Republican legislative leadership has discussed limiting Evers’ executive authority, power the GOP-controlled Legislature in many cases handed over to Walker when he began his first term in 2011. Lawmakers could take up some measures in a special session in the coming weeks.

The governor-elect last week fired back.

“Let me be clear: the Republicans and Speaker Vos should stop any and all attempts to play politics and weaken the powers of the governor’s office in Wisconsin before I take the oath,” Evers tweeted. 

Such a move isn’t unprecedented. Democrats attempted to do the same in late 2010 before Walker took over the governor’s office. Their lame-duck-session campaign to pass several public employee protections failed when a couple of Democrats refused to toe the party line. 

There is one problem with Kittle’s premise. There are really no signs that government got smaller in Walker’s eight years in office. Taxes are lower (though not enough reduced), but is employee headcount smaller? Is spending less? (Not when a governor brags about “historic” increases in education spending.) How many regulations were eliminated instead of merely rewritten? Was regulatory power taken from the state and moved to counties or municipalities or eliminated entirely? Shifting power (from, say, teacher unions to school district administrators, which answer to elected school boards, as Act 10 did) is not necessarily reducing the size and scope of government.

Did the Legislature pass and voters approve a Taxpayer Bill of Rights establishing constitutional limits on spending and taxes? For all the sturm und drang over Act 10, maybe Walker should have gone bigger and, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did, issued an executive order, or persuaded the Legislature to pass a law, banning public employee unions. What more could have happened? Recall attempts against Republicans?

Many worthy things took place while Walker was governor — tax cuts, Act 10 and concealed carry, to name three. But to assert that Democrats’ taking over the executive branch of state government is a return to bigger government assumes that government shrank under Walker, when it didn’t.

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