Category: Wisconsin politics

The former fiscally sort-of-conservative state GOP

Dan O’Donnell:

It’s something of a rite of passage for teenagers to be left home alone for a weekend while Mom and Dad go out of town. Years of earned trust are put to the ultimate test: As soon as word gets out that the parents are gone, the peer pressure to host a drinking party can be overwhelming.

If it can be withstood, then the kids have proven that they can be responsible adults. If not, then it’s difficult for Mom and Dad to ever trust them alone again.

This year’s biennial budget process has proven to be a similar test for Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, as for the first time they have been left home alone without former Governor Scott Walker keeping them from hosting a spending party.

They haven’t exactly earned Dad’s trust.

Left to their own devices following Walker’s defeat in November, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) have approved a staggering $1.88 billion on new construction projects. Not only is that nearly double the $1 billion in new construction spending in the 2017-2019 budget (Walker’s last), it tops even the previous record of $1.7 billion spent by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle.

That’s right: Left with the house to themselves, Republicans managed to outspend the guy who left Wisconsin with a $3.6 billion structural deficit.

To be sure, Walker’s budgets weren’t nearly as austere as his political opponents made them out to be—state spending steadily increased during his term—but he always kept the bigger spending legislators in his party from indulging their basest instincts.

He was the only adult keeping the kegs out of his kitchen. Now that he’s gone, though, it’s party time.

Governor Evers proposed spending $1.07 billion on building projects in the University of Wisconsin System. The Republican-led JFC approved $1.03 billion. Evers wanted to borrow $902 million to pay for it. Republicans approved $857 million—just four percent less.

Evers proposed spending an additional $537.7 million on transportation. Republicans approved $484 million—only ten percent less. They also increased K-12 education spending by $500 million and Department of Health Services spending by $1.63 billion.

As the MacIver Institute reported earlier this month, they even bragged about how their health and welfare “budget surpasses, in some cases doubling…Evers’ budget proposal.”

Fiscal conservatives should rightly question why Republicans would ever crow about outspending a Democrat, while anyone with even a passing knowledge of recent Wisconsin history should question the sanity of anyone of any party who outspends Jim Doyle.

Though Walker himself boasted of dramatically increasing education spending in his final budget and was perhaps over-reliant on bonding to fund ballooning transportation costs, he was always a fiscally sane Dad who kept the kids in line. With him out of the house, they’re running wild and risking the legacy they built together.

In the Walker era, legislative Republicans passed quite possibly the single greatest state spending reform in American history in Act 10 and then followed it up with Right to Work legislation and a partial reform of prevailing wage requirements.

Now they’re, as even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noticed, “fighting on Evers’ turf” by their focusing “their funding increases into Evers’ priorities — health care, education and transportation.”

Of course, JFC Republicans are quick to point out that they also passed a $536 million tax cut without adopting Evers’ plan of simultaneously raising taxes on businesses and retirees, but this is akin to a teenager promising to clean the house after Mom and Dad came home early and found all of the empty beer bottles: The damage is already done.

If, left to their own devices, Wisconsin Republicans can no longer be trusted to hold the line on spending—or to at least not try so desperately to outspend Wisconsin Democrats—then why should Wisconsin conservatives believe that they can continue to be responsible stewards of state funds?

Hopefully, adults in the full Senate and Assembly will rein in the JFC’s spending binge and adopt a more fiscally responsible budget than one that could potentially run a structural deficit as high as $1.5 billion over the next two years.

If they don’t, there’s a good chance that voters won’t leave the kids in charge of the house again.

One irony here is that Doyle’s last budget included several Doyle line-item vetoes of profligate spending of his own party. It was nevertheless so grossly out of balance that it torpedoed the state’s economy, already weakened by the Great Recession (thanks to the 2007–08 Democratic-controlled Congress). Ponder spending that is too high for even a Democratic governor.

The other thing, of course, is that this budget should be impossible and illegal because this state should have constitutional, not merely statutory, controls on spending and tax increases. Fiscal responsibility is the second most important thing government does, after preservation of our constitutional rights. Republicans failed to enact permanent (or as permanent as it gets in government) spending and tax controls through the constitutional-amendment process.



Another excessively large state budget

Owen Robinson of the former Boots and Sabers blog:

Wisconsin has long been a tax hell where it is more expensive to live, work, and play than in most other states. Gov. Scott Walker and the legislative Republicans made some progress over the last eight years in making the state more affordable, but now many of those same legislative Republicans are allowing the state to slide back.

One of the myths perpetuated by Wisconsin’s liberals is that Governor Walker and the Republicans cut spending and starved government when Walker was in office. We have all heard the claims of cutting “to the bone” and draconian austerity measures. All of those claims are wrong. The truth is that every state budget that Walker signed spent more than the previous one.

What Walker and his Republican partners in the Legislature did was keep the spending increases smaller than normal while cutting taxes, deregulating, and aggressively working to improve the business climate. The result was a sustained period of improving in the national tax burden rankings (primarily because other states were jacking up taxes while Wisconsin held steady), higher employment, private-sector growth, and increasing tax revenues that resulted in budget surpluses.

It is a formula that works for a while, but it does not fix the root cause of the issue. Wisconsin is a tax hell because the government spends too much. Politicians can feed the spending beast without tax increases for a while by borrowing, juicing the economy with tax cuts and deregulation, and financial gimmickry, but eventually the bill must be paid. State government does not have the ability to print money like the federal government.

Now that Governor Walker has been replaced by a doctrinaire, tax-and-spend Gov. Tony Evers, the legislative Republicans who worked so well with Walker are regressing.

The state budget is being crafted by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. Once the JFC is finished with the budget, it will be sent for votes and possible amendments in the Assembly and the Senate. Since the Republicans still command sizable majorities in both houses of the Legislature, the Republicans are in complete control of what goes into, and what gets left out of, the budget.

Over the past few weeks, the Republicans on the JFC have been on a spending spree. They decided to spend an additional $500 million on K-12 education despite no correlation between spending and educational outcomes. The Republicans increased spending on UW by $58 million even though the UW System has refused to consolidate and economize in the face of declining enrollment.

Last week, the JFC cranked up spending on transportation to the tune of $484 million. Perhaps remembering the 2017 audit completed by the Legislative Audit Bureau that found billions of dollars of waste and overruns in the Department of Transportation, Republican leaders have promised a series of reform bills are in the works, but it is worth noting that they are willing to spend the money before any reforms are even introduced — much less in place.

On those three items alone, Republican leaders in the Legislature are already committing increasing spending by over a billion dollars — and there are dozens of state departments to go.

Republicans are also already acknowledging that the days of increasing spending without tax increases are over. Their desire to spend more is outstripping their ability to keep taxes in check. In order to support the spending increases for transportation, the Republicans voted to increase vehicle title fees by $95 and annual registration fees by $10. They expect these to extract an additional $393 million from hardworking Wisconsinites to support their gross spending habit.

Even during the Walker era, Wisconsin’s Republicans have never been able to shake their spending addiction. They spend a little less than Democrats, but never actually cut spending. And if we never cut spending, we can never sustain cutting taxes. Now that Governor Evers has moved the spending goal even higher, the Republicans in the Legislature seem to be reveling in exploding spending without any pressure from the governor’s office to restrain themselves.

The Republicans lost every statewide election in Wisconsin last year largely because they gave up on the conservative revolution and failed to give the Republican grass roots anything to be excited about. Their behavior in this budget is evidence that they have not learned the lesson.

One reason Republicans overspend is because Republicans, Democrats and everyone else is able to overspend because this state does not have constitutional limits on spending and taxes. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights hasn’t been forwarded for a constitutional referendum vote by Republicans. That’s because Republicans want unlimited control of government when they’re in office, just like Democrats want unlimited control of government when they’re in office.

Politicians of any or no party will overspend and overtax unless they are prevented from overspending and overtaxing.


Transportation taxation without representation

Dan O’Donnell:

In something of a surprise, the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature has rejected Governor Evers’ effort to raise the state’s 32.9 cent per-gallon tax on gasoline in an effort to close a projected $1.1 billion budget shortfall.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has long been open to the possibility of raising the gas tax, told a group of conservatives last week that “an increase…to fund Wisconsin’s transportation projects is off the table,” the MacIver News Service reported exclusively.

This about-face has left Evers scrambling, as he believed that his proposed eight cent per gallon hike was a potential opening for negotiation with an eye toward a compromise at four or five cents per gallon.

Not a chance, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelon Friday.  In a news release later that afternoon, Vos agreed that any increase at all would be “tough to get done.”

As well it should be. Raising the gas tax is a short-sighted solution to a long-term problem. So naturally, Illinois is diving in headfirst.

On July 1, Illinois’ gas tax will double from 19 cents per gallon to 38 cents. That, combined with the 18.4 cents per gallon federal tax, means drivers in Illinois will pay 56 cents in tax on every gallon of gas they purchase—a total of $10.08 every time they fill up an 18-gallon tank.

Assuming that the average driver fills up once a week, he or she will pay $524.16 just in gasoline taxes each year. Illinois’ new tax comprises $177.84 of that; a whopping 34 percent.

Such a dramatic increase in the middle of the summer vacation season will have an immediate impact on driving habits. Generally speaking, when gas prices are higher, people drive less—especially those for whom the added price is a more significant factor.

Gas taxes are among the most regressive in America, as they have a disproportionate impact on those who earn lower incomes (and, not coincidentally, tend to drive older, less fuel-efficient vehicles).  Someone earning $200,000 isn’t likely to notice or care much about having to pay $13.68 more per month in Illinois gas taxes. Someone earning $20,000 certainly will, and they will modify their driving habits accordingly.

An even more significant concern for Illinois—or any state dependent upon a gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure—is the American consumer’s long-term driving habits.Ride-sharing has made private car ownership much less of a necessity in cities like Chicago, while car companies themselves are clearly preparing for a future without gasoline.

By January of 2018, the world’s automotive manufacturers had already spent upwards of $90 billion researching and developing electric vehicles.

“We’re all in,” Ford Motor Company CEO Bill Ford, Jr. told Reuters after spending an estimated $11 billion on electric.

Just two months ago, General Motors—the country’s largest carmaker—announced a $424 million investment in production of a new electric-powered Chevrolet.Earlier in the year, Steve Carlisle, president of GM’s Cadillac brand, said the company was going “all in” on electric vehicles.

“[By the] early to middle part of the next decade, all transportation will be electric,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.“Once you say that’s the way the world is going to be, it comes down to, ‘So how do we get there?’”

Even online retail giant Amazon, which has been at the forefront of global technological trends for more than a decade, is betting big on electric vehicle technology with an estimated $700 million investment in a company that has been developing an all-electric pickup truck and SUV.

Once this technology is widely available and, crucially, affordable—perhaps in as little as five years—gas tax revenues will plummet, leaving states dependent on them scrambling to plug even greater budget deficits than those they face today.

Wisconsin, then, would be (as per usual) wise not to follow Illinois down this road.Governor Evers believes that an initial eight-cent gas tax hike coupled with a yearly increase of another cent to tie the tax more closely to the rate of inflation could bring in several hundred million dollars in revenue per year, but this estimate just isn’t based in reality.

The easiest way to reduce public consumption of a product is to tax it, and the quickest way to convince consumers to make the leap to an electric vehicle is to make the price of keeping their old gas guzzler too great to justify.

If, as the automotive industry predicts, electric vehicles will dominate the roads in just a few short years, increased dependence on a steadily rising gas tax would leave Wisconsin with a new and even more pressing problem: What can it do when the product it has been taxing no longer exists?

Benjamin Yount reports on a worse alternative than raising the gas tax:

Republican lawmakers in Madison are facing more questions from the right over their plan to possibly create a per-mile fee for drivers in the state.

Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin is the latest to voice opposition to a study included in the Republican’s proposed transportation budget that is ostensibly aimed at the feasibility of a mileage fee.

Eric Bott, AFP’s state director in Wisconsin, says the study is really the first step toward a new tax on drivers.

“This so-called ‘study’ approved by [the Joint Finance Committee] would also give the Committee the complete authority to institute a per mileage fee program without any additional oversight from the entirety of the legislature or the executive branch,” Bott wrote in an open letter to lawmakers. “The language does not limit what the fee could be or how much tracking the government can do of your driving.”

Republicans on the state’s budget writing panel, the Joint Finance Committee, last week voted to include $2.5 million for a study on a mileage fee.

But the proposal they agreed to goes well beyond just a study.

JFC members gave themselves the power to decide if a per-mile fee is needed, what those fees would cost, and whether those fees need to increase at any time.

JFC members would be the only ones to vote on the fees, the full State Assembly and State Senate would not have to act.

“A mere 16 members of a legislative committee would determine if the government can track your mileage and charge you a yet-to-be-determined fee – an unprecedented authority for a legislative committee,” Bott’s letter said.

In reality, 16 lawmakers wouldn’t need to vote to raise the fees, just a majority of the Joint Finance Committee would have to agree to raise the fees.

“Under the proposal, nine votes is all it would take for government to start tracking how we drive and assessing a massive new tax. That’s not democracy as we know it,” Bott said. “Our system of democracy and our state constitution require politicians to vote on tax increases. This is an attempt to shirk that responsibility.”

There is no guess as to how much a per-mile fee on drivers would cost. Though Republicans are looking to raise nearly $500 million more for roads in the new state budget. Much of that money would come from increases in license plate fees, a new hybrid car fee, and an increase in the cost to transfer a car title.

It’s parts of a nearly $2 billion construction plan to build and fix roads across the state.

“The transportation budget passed by JFC includes other revenue increases, paid for by hardworking Wisconsinites. The increases in title fees and annual registration fees can and should be enough,” Bott wrote in his letter. “We need to focus on sustainable transportation funding, which includes many of the reforms to the Department introduced by your colleagues, not an invasive and costly per mile fee.”

Bottom line, Bott said, is that taxpayers deserve better than a shadowy process that could end up costing them for years and years to come.

“The policy included in the June 6th transportation omnibus motion that gives the Joint Committee on Finance unilateral authority to impose a per mile fee on Wisconsinites is a dangerous precedent to set for our democracy, our privacy and our pocketbooks,” Bott added.

It is a gross violation of our rights to give anyone or any group the ability to unilaterally set taxes without a vote by the Legislature. One has to wonder who in the GOP thinks this is a good idea.

The crazy thing about a mileage tax is that out-of-state drivers wouldn’t pay anything (similar to increasing registration fees), but Wisconsin drivers would be taxed on their travel outside the state. At least the gas tax is paid by out-of-state drivers, although this state’s gas tax is already higher than the natural average. Any tax increase that affects products shipped by truck will become more expensive to ship, which will raise the price of that product. A mileage tax certainly looks like an attempt to get people to travel less, which is a strange attitude for a state in which tourism is one of its top three industries.

Automatic indexing of a tax is similarly taxation without representation. Every tax increase should be voted on by the Legislature. (Actually, I would prefer statewide referenda on tax increases, but that requires a change in the Constitution.)

I remain unconvinced that any tax or fee increase is necessary. Spending prioritization certainly is necessary. The state Department of Transportation has convinced no one except the road-building lobby (i.e. the Wisconsin Transportation Development Association) that it has initiated any kind of spending or other reform to make road projects cost less. Until then, the DOT does not need more money.



The newest reasons to hate Madison

The Nation profiles the People’s Republic of Madison and its new general secretary — I mean mayor:

The woman I met at the Ancora Coffee on King Street near the state capitol building came across as someone more comfortable leading a committee meeting than a protest chant. A white woman in her late 40s with short, wavy, gray-streaked hair, and striking gray-blue eyes, [Satya] Rhodes-Conway lacks the impassioned charisma of insurgents like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it’s clear why her calm, thoughtful intelligence resonated with Madison voters: She is serious, knowledgeable, direct yet reserved, and careful with her words.

When asked, Rhodes-Conway acknowledged that Madison’s lefty reputation is, in some ways, “well-deserved”: “Our residents are, for the most part, depending what word you want to use, liberal, progressive, left-leaning, and the city is, in general, a very high Democratic-performing city.”

Our meeting spot certainly lived up to my image of Madison. Ancora is a Madison chain that serves espresso “sourced from the finest fair-trade organic beans” and sells strawberry-basil pop pastries from local bakeries. A sign proclaims in block capital letters, we filter coffee not people. At one point, a young woman approached the counter and trilled, “You guys have all the good gluten-free!”

Should I point out that most people are not gluten-intolerant, and that going gluten-free when you don’t have celiac disease could actually harm you?

But, Rhodes-Conway stressed, Madison isn’t all sweetness, light, and power to the people. The local government, she said, “has not always kept up with that reputation.” There are areas in which the city provides a high level of service, and others in which it has fallen behind. She cited climate change as an area where Madison has lagged, adding that she is working to address it. Flooding in August 2018 reminded many Madisonians that the city needs to strengthen its resilience in the face of changing weather patterns. “Adaptation is critical,” said Rhodes-Conway in April.

How did Madison end up with an earnest female mayor not content to let the city rest on its lefty laurels? In early April, Rhodes-Conway, a former Madison City Council member who directed the Mayors Innovation Project at UW-Madison, beat the incumbent mayor, Paul Soglin, 62 to 38 percent. Soglin was first elected mayor of Madison in 1973, at the age of 27. A lawyer and activist who once gave Fidel Castro a key to the city, he went on to serve three nonconsecutive spans—from 1973–79, 1989–97, and 2011–19—earning the moniker “Mayor for life.” In unseating Soglin, Rhodes-Conway became just the second woman and the first openly LGBT mayor in the city’s history.

Rhodes-Conway’s margin of victory was arguably more surprising than her victory itself. She was helped by the fact that Soglin said in July 2018 that he would not seek reelection, praised her as “far superior in every way” to his other challengers, and then changed his mind in November 2018 and decided to seek another term after all.

But what explains the decisiveness of Rhodes-Conway’s victory? One answer, she said, is that she ran a “strong grassroots campaign” in which volunteers “knocked on a lot of doors,” in addition to reaching voters through social media, calling, and texting. Her campaign also had “a positive message, presented a vision, and talked about what’s possible.”

Part of that vision involves addressing Madison’s racial inequity: “I think people feel, white people feel, that we live in a very progressive city that is really good for people, and that is really not true for people of color and particularly for African Americans.” Black people account for 6.5 percent of Madison’s population, compared with 39 percent in nearby Milwaukee. A 2019 report ranked Wisconsin the most segregated state in America.

During her campaign, Rhodes-Conway talked about the city’s need to support minority entrepreneurship in the retail, service, and entertainment industries and said she would create an Office of Community Engagement. She also pledged to work with community groups and focus on neighborhood development.

In addition to advancing racial equity, she described her biggest priorities as expanding affordable housing, improving bus service, and addressing climate change. Our conversation doesn’t stray far from those topics. Despite being Madison’s first openly LGBT mayor, she does not raise the topic of LGBT equality, nor did she discuss it much while running for office (in 2014, Madison was named the 10th-most-LGBT-friendly city in America).

When asked which American public figures she most admires, she does mention several openly gay politicians, as well as Michelle Obama. “I’m trying to not name any presidential candidates,” she laughingly confessed. When I pressed, she politely but firmly demurred and pivoted to praising Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin—like Rhodes-Conway, an openly gay graduate of Smith College—for “her ability to calmly and quietly get the work done.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone’s sexual preference were no one’s business besides that person’s?

She also brought up John DeStefano, the former mayor of New Haven. She said she once heard DeStefano deliver a speech in which he declared, “America can be a great nation or it can be a racist nation, but it can’t be both.” Rhodes-Conway was impressed: “To hear this older white man in a position of power name that, to me, was really powerful.”

Rhodes-Conway places a high premium on acknowledging privilege and bringing in multiple constituencies. Before making decisions, she said, she seeks out as many viewpoints as possible. Her instinct “is always to find a way to be collaborating or in partnership with somebody.”

I bet there’s one constituency she does not seek out.

At one point I asked, if she could fix one of Madison’s problems unilaterally, without needing the cooperation of the Republican-controlled state government, what would it be? After a moment’s hesitation—“Boy,” she said, “Just one or two?”—she replied that strengthening tenant protections would be number one. “That’s where people are hurting the most.” After that, she would tackle wage-and-hour laws and expand worker protections, including the minimum wage, earned sick time, fair scheduling, and paid parental leave. Finally, she returned to a central theme of her campaign: the need to restore regional transportation authority, which the state legislature effectively abolished in 2011.

There is a way to avoid where people are “hurting the most.” Move outside of Madison. No one has to live in Madison, or anywhere else.

When it comes to implementing progressive policies at the municipal level, she said, cities can and must lead the way, because that kind of leadership is “not happening at the federal level”—nor, depending on where you live, at the state level, either. Rhodes-Conway seems to believe that Madison, if properly run, could serve as a beacon to the world, not just Wisconsin.

Although she has called Madison home for nearly 20 years, she moved here from Long Beach, California. Her quality of life, she said, is simply better here, adding that “part of that is my privilege as a white person.”

Madison has many assets, including natural beauty, the university, and a strong economy. “It is a great place to live,” she said, emphatically. “And it can be a great place for everyone to live.”

Another conservative group

This was announced Wednesday:

Kevin Nicholson today announced the creation of a new non-profit organization, called “No Better Friend Corp.” The section 501(c)(4) advocacy organization will focus on promoting conservative public policy solutions to societal problems and challenges in the areas of economic growth, education, health care, promoting a culture of life, and national defense. Nicholson, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, named the group after the Marine Corps’ unofficial slogan: “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.”

“In my first foray into elected politics, I learned very quickly that many politicians haven’t spent much time outside of government – and that we need more real-world, practical solutions to the problems that we face together,” Nicholson said. “I’m personally a veteran and work in business today, and my fellow board members and I have to deal with reality as it is on a daily basis. We formed No Better Friend Corp. because we believe that conservative policy solutions help people; this new organization is going to help to prove that while growing the conservative movement in Wisconsin.”

Nicholson noted, “We are grateful to have secured funding for a great team to operate throughout Wisconsin, furthering our mission in the coming years.” The group includes:

  • Darryl Carlson: a current Wisconsin Army National Guard officer and previously a Wisconsin legislative staffer – also a Marine Corps veteran.
  • Adam Chewning: previously a chief operating officer of a statewide political campaign and a technology investment banker.
  • Ronica Cleary: president of Cleary Strategies and commentator.
  • Mario Herrera: previously the Republican Party of Wisconsin Hispanic Outreach Director – and a Marine Corps veteran.
  • Jessie Nicholson: long-time conservative political advisor and grassroots activist, who will volunteer her time for No Better Friend Corp.
  • Kevin Nicholson will serve as the volunteer President/CEO of No Better Friend Corp.

The organization’s website, which can be found at notes: “While No Better Friend Corp. implements and advocates for public policy solutions to the problems we all face together, we will also proactively work to reach out and bring new voices into the conservative movement.  The team at No Better Friend Corp. understands that we’re all in this together, and we are dedicated to building a better state and nation for everyone.”

Nicholson added: “In addition to our paid staff, my wife Jessie and I will be volunteer board members, traveling Wisconsin, working with our great team to share and implement practical and tangible solutions to the challenges that our state and nation face. We also look forward to partnering with conservative public policy groups around the state to build our movement.”

The advisory board for No Better Friend Corp. initially includes Kathryn “Murph” Burke, Jim Klauser, Mary Stitt, and Liz and Dick Uihlein.

No Better Friend Corp. is organized as a Wisconsin nonstock corporation and operates as a section 501(c)(4) advocacy organization.

The Uihleins are major GOP donors. Klauser was Gov. Tommy Thompson’s secretary of administration.

This will be interesting to watch develop. One reason Nicholson lost the 2018 U.S. Senate GOP primary was because Republican voters didn’t think he was a convincing Republican as a former Democrat. Of course, Ronald Reagan was an ex-Democrat too. (The other reason was that GOP voters seemed to think that Leah Vukmir was more electable, which turned out to mean “not really electable either.”)

Nicholson’s group is a way for Nicholson to stay in the public eye for a possible next run for office. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson announced before the 2016 election that his second term in office would be his last, and obviously Republicans will want to make Tony Evers a one-term governor in the 2022 election as well.

Wisconsin conservatism is interesting in ideological terms. Republicans in this state have always been pro-free trade because, in a rare bipartisan consensus, free trade has been seen to benefit Wisconsin agriculture and manufacturing, two of the state’s Big Three of business. And yet, Donald Trump is not pro-free trade, and his stance is definitely hurting Wisconsin agriculture.

Wisconsin also has not had the death penalty for more than a century, and there have been few serious efforts to bring it back. (Former state Sen. Alan Lasee introduced a bill every legislative session to institute the death penalty, and Thompson at least once said he’d sign a death penalty bill if it got to his desk. No such bill got to his desk because GOP leadership didn’t want it to get to Thompson’s desk.) Perhaps in a very Catholic state, even Republicans believe it’s inconsistent to be anti-abortion and pro-death penalty.

If conservatism is about ideas instead of feelings, as modern-day liberalism clearly is, then the more right ideas the better.


Trump’s tariffs are so big …

Brett Arends wrote this last week:

I’m used to partisan, inaccurate drivel from all sides these days, but the media’s coverage of President Trump’s tariffs and the so-called “trade war” takes some kind of cake.

There’s no serious doubt that some in the media would absolutely love to tank the stock market. They figure that would hurt Trump’s re-election chances in 2020. Monday’s stock market slump, which saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -1.41% tumble 2.4% and the Nasdaq Composite 3.4%, looked just like what the doctor ordered.

I write this, incidentally, as someone who is no fan of the president. But I remember when politics was supposed to stop at the water’s edge.

And, anyway, facts are facts. Most of what the public is being told about these tariffs is either misleading or a downright lie.

I’ve been following the coverage all weekend with my jaw on the floor.

Yes, tariffs are “costs.” But they do not somehow destroy our money. They do not take our hard-earned dollars and burn them in a big pile. Tariffs are simply federal taxes. That’s it. The extra costs paid by importers, and consumers, goes to Uncle Sam, to distribute as he sees fit, including, for example, on Obamacare subsidies.

It wasn’t long ago the media was complaining because Trump was cutting taxes. Now it’s complaining he’s raising them. Confused? Me too.

And the amounts involved are trivial. Chicken feed.

President Trump just hiked tariffs from 10% to 25% on about $200 billion in Chinese imports. In other words, he just raised taxes by … $30 billion a year.

Oh, no!

The total amount we all paid in taxes last year — federal, state and local — was $5.51 trillion. This tax increase that has everyone’s panties in a twist is a rounding error.

Meanwhile, the total value wiped off U.S. stocks during Monday’s panic was about $700 billion. More than 20 years’ worth of the new tariffs.

Even if Trump slapped 25% taxes on all Chinese imports, it would come to a tax hike of … $135 billion a year. U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) last year: $20.5 trillion.

So even this supposedly scary “escalation” of this “tariff war” would, er, raise our total tax bill from 26.9% of GDP all the way to 27.5% of GDP.

Oh, and isn’t it interesting to see some people’s priorities? Apparently the most shocking part of this trivial tax hike is that it might raise the price of new Apple iPhones.

Last I checked, these were luxury items, right?

Meanwhile, the trade spat seems to be bringing down food prices. China is going to take less of our farm products. So wheat prices are down 20% since the start of the year. Soybeans are at 10-year lows.

Good for consumers, right?

No, no, of course not! Silly you. This is also bad news … for farmers!

And all this ignores the much bigger picture, anyway.

The tariffs are simply a means to an end. The president is trying to get China to start buying more of our stuff. He knows the so-called Middle Kingdom, which now has the second-biggest economy in the world, responds to incentives more than to nice words. These tariffs give China an incentive to open up.

OK, so China’s first reaction is just to retaliate. Big deal. That’s just posturing.

Right now we export less to China than we do to Japan, South Korea and Singapore put together. That’s the point. So the effect of China’s new tariffs on the U.S. are yet another rounding error. Even if China banned all imports from the U.S., that would amount to only 0.6% of our gross domestic product. And we’d sell the stuff somewhere else.

Don’t buy the hysteria. President Trump is simply trying to pressure our biggest competitor to buy more American goods. That should be a good thing, even if you don’t like him.

Arends is not, as far as I know, a Republican or a conservative. Marketwatch lists him as “an award-winning financial columnist with many years experience writing about markets, economics and personal finance. He has received an individual award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for his financial writing, and was part of the Boston Herald team that won two others. He has worked as an analyst at McKinsey & Co., and is a Chartered Financial Consultant. His latest book, Storm Proof Your Money, was published by John Wiley & Co.”

So Arends may be right. We better hope he is.


A job I’m not applying for

A Facebook Friend pointed out that the owner of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, Lee Enterprises, is looking for …

Reporter – State Government

News & Editorial  Madison, Wisconsin  Madison, Wisconsin

Position at Wisconsin State Journal

The Wisconsin State Journal, south-central Wisconsin’s leading news source, is seeking a smart and aggressive reporter to join its state government reporting team.

This is both the opportunity you’ve been looking for and the hardest job you’ll ever love. As one of two Capitol reporters, you’ll be expected to produce high-impact enterprise and watchdog stories amid the daily demands of reporting from a supercharged partisan environment. Coverage areas include all three branches of state government, politics and elections in a vibrant and constantly evolving political culture that is often in the national spotlight.

Experience in accountability reporting, aggressive use of public records laws, facility with data and an ability to develop sources and establish trust and credibility on both sides of the aisle is required. This position also demands an ability to report in real time for our online platforms and via social media, and an aptitude or desire to shoot video. At least five years of daily newspaper reporting experience is preferred. Past political coverage is desired, but a can-do attitude and demonstrated work ethic matter more.

To be considered for the position applicants must apply online at by June 10, 2019. Please include a cover letter and five samples of your work or links to five recent stories.

Capital Newspapers offers:

  • Competitive compensation
  • Great benefits package including medical, dental, vision, and life, insurances; matching 401k plan; paid maternity and paternity leaves; and regular paid time off
  • Culture of teamwork, professional work environment, and a focus on growth opportunities
  • Free print subscription to the Wisconsin State Journal and free digital subscription to for all employees

Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer:
The Capital Newspapers organization is an affirmative action employer. We are committed to maintaining a workforce that accurately reflects our audience and expands our voice.

Pre-employment background and drug screenings apply.

Once upon a time — say, 20 to 25 years ago — I would have jumped at this. Not anymore, and for several reasons, the least of which is that according to their requirements I’m not qualified, since my 7.5 months of (very strange) experience at a daily newspaper is short of their five years requirement. The idea that weekly reporters are unfamiliar with deadlines is ridiculous. I have written more stories the day of production at the various places I’ve worked because the news came up just that day. Anyone who has done web content that has to be done right now is not unfamiliar with daily deadlines. I’m probably more qualified than some daily reporters on that point.

The State Journal is, remember, the newspaper I started reading, according to my parents, when I was 2 years old. (I bet nobody on the WSJ staff can say that.) I’ve been in the State Journal a few times, including two city spelling bee wins and therefore two state spelling bee appearances.

Wisconsin State Journal, May 1, 1977. That’s the look on my face when a few wild guesses got me a city spelling bee title.

Eight years later I woke up one August Sunday morning and grabbed the State Journal to find out, to my surprise, I was pictured on the front page, because I sat next to a fellow UW Band member who had a Packers helmet-shaped umbrella, and the band had played at the previous day’s Packer preseason game. (A 33–0 loss to Washington, which was on its way to winning that season’s Super Bowl.)

Washington 33, Packers 0, which explains my disgusted look below the helmet umbrella. Note that this 1987 photo was taken by the same photographer who took my photo in 1977.

I also contributed to the State Journal’s state basketball tournament 100th-anniversary special section, giving an abridged version of my high school’s 1982 state champion team.

I am well qualified other than that five-year thing. I majored in journalism and political science, I’ve interviewed every governor since Tony Earl and more state legislators than I can count. I can count as one of my career highlights telling a Catholic bishop that he can’t throw out a reporter in a public building. (Similar to what I told a school board president less than a year into this silly line of work.) And to fit in this 21st-century media age of ours, I can be a political pundit, on radio and TV, literally worldwide.

Wisconsin is a fascinating state politically speaking, though less so than it used to be, given that both parties have purged themselves of their more moderate elements. (Time was when the GOP had remnants of the old Progressive Party as late as the 1980s, and I recall a state representative, a Democrat, who Republicans told me was more conservative than some Republicans.) This is, after all, the same state that brought the nation Fighting Bob La Follette and Joe McCarthy. (Who defeated Fighting Bob’s son in a U.S. Senate GOP primary.)

So why am I not applying? First, with 31 years of doing this (including this blog and its predecessor opinion blog), I am now more used to telling people what to do than being told what to do. (Though at present I don’t really have anyone to tell what to do in the day job.) I tell people I hate politicians, including the ones I vote for. “Hate” is sometimes a strong word, but I certainly assume they’re all in it for their own political power and are therefore not averse to not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (As for their sycophants and other supporters, I believe you are what you believe in.)

The State Journal has been, based on the reports of others, bled considerably by its owner because of its owner’s poor newspaper purchase decisions. Daily newspapers are as a whole doing worse than weeklies, comparatively speaking.

I am also really, really tired of the political bullshit, basically at every level of government. (A political reporter who hates politics? A government reporter who increasingly hates government?) I would say that Republicans are often wrong, but Democrats are nearly always wrong, and that “wrong” thing applies to nonpartisan politicians too. Beyond party and ideology, political reporters spend far too much time covering the horse race and stories of zero importance to real people (which I tried to point out, not always successfully, in my radio pundit days), and infinitely too much time copying and pasting the news releases that come into their mailboxes from politicians, would-be politicians and their supporters and opponents, and too little time answering the question that has been posted on top of my monitor for more than two decades: What does this story mean to the reader? That is particularly an important question to answer for political crap.

If the State Journal wanted some street cred with the political right of Wisconsin (who are more likely newspaper readers and subscribers than those on the left side), they would hire someone like me, but they won’t. Those who know my conservatarian bent who lack that in Madison would probably refuse to talk to me or call me rude names. (Of course, I could write a story about that.) It would be fun to, as I’ve been known to do at political meetings, sit in the audience at a meeting and glower at the participants. I bet Tony Evers would really, really love me.

And yet, the odious phrase “the personal is political” should be erased from our collective consciousness because it should not apply. The State Journal is looking for a reporter and not a columnist to tell the Madison lefties (who are presumably their readers) what a bunch of self-centered idiots they are. (Arguably repeatedly telling your readership they’re wrong is a subpar way to boost your business, particularly in this era in which the only acceptable views are views that agree with yours.) I believe that neither Wisconsin nor Madison is the center of the universe, and while visiting my hometown is sometimes fun, the vast majority of Madison’s people are not people I would choose to associate with, let alone have as neighbors. (As if anyone can afford Madison house prices.) I also suspect I’d have to give up my side sports broadcasting thing, which is more fun than my day job.

Being hated by various State Capitol types would be fun, or would have been fun, but that was then, and I prefer living with real people, not in the People’s Republic of Madison.


The GOP after 2018

James Wigderson wrote this before last weekend’s Wisconsin Republican Party convention:

The party is reeling from an audit that revealed Wisconsin Republicans spent far too much on Washington D.C. consultants, ran down the party treasury, and even skipped some payments to vendors. Despite spending like Democrats, the Republican Party actually lost every statewide office in 2018 even with a strong economy.

I didn’t need a report to tell me that Republicans are spending too much on D.C. consultants. As the editor here, I’ve been amazed at the articles sent to me by public relations firms in Washington that were supposedly written by Wisconsinites. The Republican Party could just send us the check with the article and cut out the middle man, except it’s obviously the middle men doing the writing.

Reading the report, there seems to be four reforms the party will undertake: be nicer to volunteers, more yard signs, use less expensive consultants, and pay the bills. Yes, despite the report saying we shouldn’t roll our eyes at “more yard signs,’ we should roll our eyes at “more yard signs.”

The report also mentions doing a better job of coordinating media responses and improving communications. That could start any day now since we weren’t even asked if we wanted to have a booth again at the convention. (You would think they would want our money.) Not one person at the party has reached out to see if we were coming to the convention. I only mention it because, if in theory we’re the likeminded side of the media, imagine how poor the communications must be with the rest of the media.

Missing from the report, however, is a real accounting of what is happening to the Republican Party. For example: while the report mentions the growing gender gap, it does not acknowledge that part of the problem is President Donald Trump’s unpopularity with suburban women. And while the report claims the Republican Party wants to reach out to Hispanic voters, perhaps somebody should have a conversation with the Waukesha Republican Party who hosted a “Build the Wall” gala.

But even before Trump’s election, a whole horde of grifters infiltrated the conservative movement, alienating voters who should be Republicans, motivating Democrats to turn out their voters, and feasting on the financial carcass of the elephant.

Ironically, the state party is bringing one of those alienating grifters, Candace Owens, to speak at the convention dinner Saturday night. What a long way the party has fallen when they’re so embarrassed by what Owens might say that the event is closed to the media. Are they afraid she is going to say more nice things about Adolf Hitler?

Sadly, the Owens event is “sold out,” demonstrating just how willing the grass roots of the party are willing to be fleeced by someone who is willing to tell them Trump and the GOP will win over minority voters before the 2020 election. But hey, she annoys all the right people, so let’s buy tickets, right? I don’t know which is worse, the party pandering to the least common denominator, or that it worked.

As for the changes to the party that have been made so far, it’s near unanimous among Republicans that bringing Mark Jefferson back to be the executive director was a good move. Hopefully, Jefferson can catch the party up to the Democrats in organizing the grass roots to turn out voters. As we learned from the special state senate elections in 2018 and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, the Democrats are ahead in technology and organization, as well as motivation. The opposition research and messaging for the party could use a real upgrade, too.

Reactions are mixed about the appointment of Andrew Hitt as the party’s chairman. Hitt was the party treasurer when all of the financial problems occurred. This is like making the Titanic’s navigator the captain of another large passenger ship. And as the Chief Operating Officer of Michael Best Strategies, how many hidden conflicts of interest will there be as his government relations organization tries to work with the Evers administration? Hitt should be a very temporary employee until the party can find a full-time party chairman, one that isn’t trying to influence government policy for paying clients while trying to run a state party.

To be fair, the losses in 2018 can’t all be laid at the state party’s door. Democrats were motivated by Trump, Republicans less so. Judge Michael Screnock’s race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court ran into anti-Trump sentiment and didn’t have an effective media campaign. Former state Sen. Leah Vukmir had to fight an awful primary and ran an awful campaign at the same time. Gov. Scott Walker was defeated by complacency and one too many campaigns, not to mention the damage done (by Trump, too) during the 2016 campaign for president. Attorney General Brad Schimel nearly won, but was dragged down by forces beyond his control, including a national GOP Attorney General committee that is behind the Democrats’ organization.

However, the party needs to improve if it is going to win. The party needs to do a real job of reaching out to women and minority voters. It needs to do a better job of fighting the Democrats. And it needs to be smarter in how it turns out GOP voters.

The few Republican activists that show up at this year’s convention will have a good time. They’ll rub elbows with elected officials, they’ll enjoy the hospitality suites and they’ll probably celebrate, in the words for former Gov. Tommy Thompson, what a great day it is to be a Republican in Wisconsin. Perhaps someday it will be again, but only with a more honest examination of what is really wrong with the party.

Why Walker lost and Hagedorn won

Dan O’Donnell:

If Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice-Elect Brian Hagedorn’s upset win last month provided demonstrable proof that the state’s grassroots drive conservative success in this state, draft portions of the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s post-mortem of the 2018 midterm election should remove all doubt.

The documents obtained by the MacIver Institute paint a picture of a Party that had lost touch with its most loyal of supporters and as such lost every statewide election on the ballot in November. 

“Over time, the Republican Party of Wisconsin (RPW) drifted from its roots as a grassroots organization and became a top-down bureaucracy, disconnected from local activists, recklessly reliant on outside consultants and took for granted money that was raised to keep the Party functioning properly,” the post-mortem found.

Local Republican Party leaders repeatedly expressed this concern, but were rebuffed and, more troublingly, “there was an additional problem concealed from the grassroots leaders—cash flow concerns, debt, and financial morass.”

The latest quarterly financial reporting figures from the Federal Election Commission show the Republican Party with $220,680.46 in cash on hand as of March 31, but the Party also held outstanding debt of $142,437.12.

This reflects the top-down organizational structure that, party leaders are concerned, hampered Governor Walker’s re-election effort last year.

“In calendar year 2018, a small handful of consultants were paid well over a half of a million dollars,” the post-mortem continued. “Some of this group performed valuable and necessary functions appropriately contracted for externally.”

“However, some of the consultants were providing services that are appropriately and more economically performed in-house in other states. Still others had few, if any, discernible job responsibilities or expectations of deliveries.”

This didn’t just drain the Party’s resources; it also “prevented RPW from building [its] farm team of future staff and young party leaders.”

Whether the over-reliance on outside consultants led to the alienation of grassroots leaders and in-house RPW staff or the consultants were hired because the staff and grassroots were unable to perform their assigned duties is still open to debate.

“Whether a failure in training, or a simple preference for paying a consultant rather than hiring the right staff, the end result was overpaying for services,” the post-mortem concluded.

As the RPW grew more dependent upon consultants, it also isolated itself from the grassroots volunteers on whom it had relied far more heavily during the 2010, 2011 and 2012 recall, and 2014 election cycles.

Those volunteers told RPW staff compiling the post-mortem that the organization didn’t effectively communicate with them and that its staff was “sometimes unhelpful, unresponsive [and] even rude.” 

Additionally, they felt that the Party’s website was “cumbersome and not as useful as it should be.” 

Fissures within the RPW were not secret in the wake of losses by Governor Scott Walker, Attorney General Brad Schimel, Senate candidate Leah Vukmir as well as Republican candidates for Secretary of State and State Treasurer. In late February, Mark Morgan resigned as the Party’s Executive Director. A week later, Party Chairman Brad Courtney stepped down as well.

When Mark Jefferson returned to serve as Executive Director—a position he held from 2007 to 2011—he immediately pledged to return the RPW to the bottom-up structure with which he felt more comfortable.

“Everybody has their lane and the best lane that the Republican Party has is the grassroots activation,” he told News/Talk 1130 WISN at the time.  “We’re the one entity that can get people off the couch and knocking on doors and making phone calls.”  

Andrew Hitt, elected Party Chairman in the wake of Courtney’s departure, concurred, and the new leadership team’s recommitment paid nearly immediate dividends with Hagedorn’s win less than a month later.

“There’s more bang for the buck in investing in grassroots and volunteer mobilization,” Jefferson told the MacIver Institute this week. “Is the money better spent getting a few more advertisements or in training people and engaging with people all over the state? We think that the money put into boots on the ground is better dollar-for-dollar than anything else you can spend money on.”

Jefferson admits that the Party’s debt is still an issue, but a manageable one since it continues to raise money ahead of the 2020 presidential election cycle. 18 months out, he is hopeful that the Party learned from the mistakes of 2018 and can build on the momentum of the Supreme Court race. 

“There’s a renewed sense of enthusiasm on the ground because we have rededicated ourselves to building that enthusiasm and channeling it into action.”

Ongoing wasteful state spending

The RightWisconsin headline of this column from two state senators is “Wisconsin’s Hidden Debt.”

The debt may be hidden; the spending is not. Long-time readers have read here about the failings of the Knowles–Nelson Stewardship Program, which buys land that almost no one can use:

In Wisconsin, our natural resources are an essential part of who we are as a state. We value our outdoor traditions and the stewardship program has helped Wisconsinites preserve natural areas and expand access to recreational activities, all of which are beneficial.

Despite being well intentioned upon enactment in 1989, the stewardship program primarily allows the state to purchase land it cannot otherwise afford, through borrowing, pushing costs onto future generations. Initially authorized for a 10 year term, the program provided $250 million in total borrowing authority to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), but, in recent years, has grown exponentially in size and scope. Unfortunately, similar to many government programs, the stewardship fund has grown beyond its original intent, while leaving Wisconsin in a financial bind.

To the detriment of Wisconsinites, the stewardship program has accumulated far too much land, has incurred staggering debt, and has resulted in decreased funds for vital state needs. Currently, the DNR has either purchased or protected 1.8 million acres of land and the debt currently owed is $795 million. To put the land acquisition in perspective, that is more acreage than the entire state of Rhode Island or Delaware. Moreover, when land is owned by the state, it cannot be developed and is not on the tax rolls, impacting the ability of local communities to generate revenue. The program, in its current form, has run its course. The days of responsible borrowing are long gone.

It is incumbent upon the legislature and the budget writing committee to reform this program, to lower the risk to taxpayers, and to fund our top priorities. In 2015, lawmakers recognized the growing concern and required the DNR to sell 10,000 acres of land as a partial solution to rising costs. While a step in the right direction, further efforts are still needed to combat the excessive debt currently being incurred. The spending is so extreme that Wisconsin taxpayers are currently paying over a half a million dollars in interest every week on debt accumulated from the stewardship fund.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the stewardship fund, since its creation, has cost Wisconsinites approximately $871 million. Should our colleagues propose to reauthorize the program for an additional 10 years in this budget, the program would need to borrow an additional $332 million, an estimate that does not include interest. In total, with borrowed interest, taxpayers would be on the hook for $533 million. To make matters worse, that figure does not include the current $795 million in existing stewardship debt.

To be clear, if reauthorized, stewardship costs will soar to $1.329 billion dollars. In a budget in which Wisconsin needs significant investment in our roads, we need to seriously evaluate how we prioritize our spending. We must ask ourselves when enough is enough.

Enough has been enough for a long time. The program buys land for “low-impact recreational activities,” which means that your tax dollars have been paying for decades for activities you can’t partake in — sometimes fishing, often hunting, and never anything that involved internal combustion engines — unless the DNR approves.

I wonder how many Wisconsinites are even aware that these land purchases have been made not through earmarked spending, but by debt.

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