Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled his budget for 2015 in a prime-time speech Tuesday night, telling the state assembly it “will help restore that America Dream right here in Wisconsin.”
But as the Governor struggles to close a nearly $2 billion budget gap, state officials on both sides of the aisle tell ThinkProgress the plan is “nonsensical,” and predict it will trigger public sector layoffs, weaken environmental protections and devastate higher education. State leaders are also blasting the budget as fiscally irresponsible, estimating that one controversial proposal to administer drug tests for food stamp recipients could cost local counties millions.
Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz added that the Governor’s policies over the past four years created much of the budget gap in the first place.
“Walker inherited a big deficit from Governor [Jim] Doyle, but now we’re right back in the same soup because of this anti-government, ‘starve the beast’ mentality,” Schultz told ThinkProgress. “As soon as there was any revenue, [Walker] wanted to cut taxes. It’s great for turning on a certain element of his base, but I’m not sure what it’s doing for the average mother and father in Wisconsin.”
The Governor’s new budget cuts property taxes even further, merges agencies that provide public services, and diverts funds from public schools into expanding private voucher programs, which Schultz called “dubious educational experiments.”
The plan also makes unprecedented massive cuts to state universities and public media. The state Department of National Resources will also take a big hit, losing 66 jobs, the ability to create new land conservation until 2028, and much of its power to regulate polluters.
As he indicated last week, Walker’s budget also aims to force many people on public assistance in the state to take a drug test, though similar programs have been ruled unconstitutional in other states.
Though many adults who receive food stamps are already working, the proposal would also make them enroll in an employment and training program in order to get benefits.
“Some might claim that we’re making it harder to get government assistance. We’re not,” Governor Walker said. “We’re making it easier to get a job. The next step is to require able-bodied adults without children to pass a drug test in order to get a welfare check. For those who fail, we will provide treatment, so we can help them get off of drugs.”
He added: “Here in Wisconsin, we help folks facing financial challenges. For those who are able, however, these programs should be a temporary safety net — not a hammock.”
The idea that government aid to the poor creates some kind of “hammock” that makes them not want to work is popular with the Tea Party, but so extreme that even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has backed away from the analogy.
Schultz, who served in the state legislature for more than three decades before retiring this year, said such rhetoric from Governor Walker has fueled polarization and tension in the state between those with disparate incomes and political beliefs.
“It sends the message that these people are on welfare because they’re drug addicts, not because of the mismanagement of the economy, the actions of large banks, and failure of Congress to do their due diligence,” he said, noting that Walker and his supporters were “constantly ginning up” anger against “people who have fallen on tough financial times.”
“If we were really serious about it, wouldn’t we ask everyone who gets public money, including grants, to take a drug test?” he asked.
Some state officials, including Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, are moving quickly to oppose the drug test proposal, by petitioning the federal government to deny the state permission to carry out the program, and if that fails, filing a lawsuit.
“In my county alone, we estimate it would cost three-quarters of a million dollars a year to test people for drugs,” Parisi told ThinkProgress, noting that the Governor’s budget offers no cost estimate for the program. “For that amount, I could get a much bigger bang for the buck in helping people. I could put more mental health crisis teams in schools. I could offer more job training to address the skills gap. Blanket drug testing everyone who has happened to fall on hard times is not supported by evidence as being an effective use of tax dollars.”
Parisi added: “We see this as picking on the poor, feeding the stereotype that they’re shady characters and drug addicts, when in fact there is lower drug use among people applying for assistance than the general population.”
Missing from Walker’s speech was any mention of the other controversial proposals the budget contains, including more than $200 million in state bonds for a new basketball stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Even the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity has come out against the stadium plan, saying: “Funding for sports arenas should not be the responsibility of the state and the hard-working taxpayers of Wisconsin.”
The stadium is far from the only piece of the budget funded by borrowing. The Governor also proposed borrowing $1.3 billion to help cover costs of transportation projects over the next two years, instead of boosting the gas tax as many have recommended.
Many Democratic lawmakers, including Gordon Hintz from Oshkosh, vowed to fight the budget when it comes up for a vote, saying it “undermines the various institutions that made Wisconsin great.” Hintz predicted that by continuing his pattern of cutting taxes and underfunding education, the Governor would worsen the current budget shortfall. “If ever there was a time to reconsider and change direction, it is now.”