Only one hurdle stands between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his upcoming bid for the White House: passing a budget to keep his state chugging for the next two years.
After months of uproar over provisions to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from state universities and strip the values of “truth” and “service” from their mission, lawmakers in Madison missed their July 1 deadline to pass the budget.
In the ensuing scramble, Governor Walker and his allies in the statehouse used the 4th of July holiday weekend to insert several more controversial provisions into the massive document, which local press called “a grab bag of pet projects.” Walker and Republican lawmakers have already been forced to retreat on one of them: a gutting of the state’s open records law that would have barred reporters and the public from accessing the documents that reveal how laws are written, including drafts and e-mails between state lawmakers.
But the other additions remain, including provisions that censor information about police shootings, scrap factory workers’ right to one day off per week, and completely eliminate the state’s 100-year-old definition of a “living wage,” which now says workers deserve pay that provides “minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being.” This major change, which has received far less attention than the open records law rewrite, would strip the state’s Department of Workforce Development of the power to to investigate complaints that an employee is not being paid a living wage, and would replace “living wage” with “minimum wage” throughout Wisconsin’s laws.
The change to the wage law comes just as low-income workers in the state are suing Governor Walker for refusing to consider their complaint that the current state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is not a living wage.
Corneil White, a fast food worker in Madison who filed a wage complaint with the state, called the timing of the law’s rewrite “ridiculous but not surprising.”
“I am a hard working man. It’s disgusting that these Republicans would rather force me to feed my son with food stamps instead of standing up to their corporate lobbyist friends,” he told ThinkProgress. “Why aren’t they working to make sure full-time working parents like me get paid enough to stand on our own? They haven’t done anything to show me that they care about my family. And despite [the state’s] claim that $7.25 is livable, they clearly they don’t believe their own argument since they are trying to repeal the law before they even know the outcome of the case.”
In the official complaint, White and nearly 100 other low-wage workers detailed what they have to do to survive on a wage of $7.25 an hour, including putting off needed health care and medication purchases, going without food, and being homeless. Their case went before a judge earlier this summer and a decision could be handed down at any time — though a ruling against Walker would be moot if the legislature approves the revised budget. Should that happen, Wisconsinites would lose the mechanism workers in New York and other states are currently using to push for a $15 an hour living wage.
“It’s telling that as Wisconsin sees the biggest decline in middle class wages in the country, Scott Walker and his GOP buddies choose to repeal the mechanism that guarantees that all hard-working Wisconsinites earn a living wage,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison with the Milwaukee worker rights group Wisconsin Jobs Now. “The scramble to gut this law is proof that these legislators admit that our minimum wage is not a living wage.”
The list of items tucked into the budget during the 11th hour negotiations over the weekend also includes a provision to exempt police from publicly reporting how they plan to use weapons or equipment they receive from the U.S. military. Another would make it more difficult for public unions to win recognition from their employers, while another would further deregulate predatory payday lenders. These moves recall the last time Governor Walker used a holiday weekend to sneak through controversial legislation; he quietly signed a mandatory ultrasound bill over the Fourth of July weekend in 2013.
The Republican-controlled legislature will debate and vote on the 2015–2017 budget in the coming weeks.