The Republican/Tea Party Coalition Agenda: A Three-Month Retrospective
As eminently acknowledged by President Obama, Democrats suffered a painful shellacking at last fall’s general elections. In addition to winning six more gubernatorial races, Republicans regained control of the US House of Representatives. While the policy and programmatic impact of this sea change has largely been buffeted at the federal level by continuing Democratic control of the Senate and the White House, same could hardly ring true at the state level.
In the months since the elections, the freshmen team of GOP/Tea Party governors wasted no time setting in motion a series of legislative initiatives unambiguously intended to crystallize core pieces of their conservative manifesto: fiscal responsibility, smaller government, deep cuts in taxes, reduced spending and a purist anti-abortion stance that opposes abortion in all circumstances including cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.
In Michigan, one of the most ravaged state economies (with horrendous unemployment rates and a notoriously shrinking manufacturing base), after introducing a budget that lowered the state’s personal income tax rate and replaced the existing business tax with a flat corporate income tax set at 6 percent while at the same time forcing painful reductions in funding for education and new lifetime limits on Family Independent Program recipients, Gov Rick Snyder blazed new trails with his proposal to slash the maximum benefit period for its out-of-work citizens from 26 to 20 weeks.
On March 15, Ohio Governor, John Kasich, unveiled a long-awaited proposed biennial budget that sought to plug an estimated $8 billion hole with a cocktail of deep cuts in Medicaid spending, corrections (with five prisons facing privatization), state allocations to local governments, and funding in support of a potpourri of social programs (including primary and secondary education, libraries, etc).
Interestingly, although poll after poll suggested that most Ohioans would rather see the state’s budget balanced through a combination of tax increases and spending reductions, Kasich fervidly defended his government’s decision to preserve an $800 million income tax cut that took effect this year and offers an additional $34 million in tax incentives.
Then there is Ohio Senate Bill 5, now headed to the State House, which Kasich wholeheartedly supported. The legislation seeks to limit collective bargaining rights for civil servants, including teachers, police officers and firefighters;eliminate binding arbitration; and prohibit public employees from going on strike.
But nowhere else has the unfolding set-up played out with as much harangue and disquiet as Wisconsin where the dust from Governor Scott Walker’s epic showdown with organized labor over a controversial budget-repair bill that summarily eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public employees and significantly increased their contributions to retirement pensions and health insurance plans is yet to settle.
There’s little doubt that what happened in Wisconsin will go down in the annals of this country’s modern political history as a watershed moment of sorts.
Gov Walker saw public employee union contracts as partly responsible for Wisconsin’s $137 million budget shortfall which, in his view, if left unaddressed, could reportedly balloon to $3.6 billion gap by 2013. He chided Wisconsin workers for forking out up to $1,000 in union dues a year; reminding everyone, assuming they didn’t readily get it, that “that’s real money!”
But only an evil genius with a truculent, minatory mind could concoct an idea so abundantly twisted and troubling: cast public employees as overpaid, lazy, self-serving bastards and pit them smack against the very people they serve!
Before becoming Governor, Walker warmed his way into the hearts of conservatives first as a staunchly pro-life, anti-labor, pro-welfare reform, tough-on-crime Wisconsin State Assemblyman. He later polished and further cemented this image upon becoming a Milwaukee County Executive by working very hard to grandly enhance his fiscal conservative credentials. Walker repeatedly railed at county workers’ salaries as excessive, voluntarily returned a little less than half of his own annual salary, and slashed the county staff strength by more than 20 percent.
Like Gov Chris Christie of New Jersey before him, since becoming Governor, Walker appears to have ascended the pinnacle of Republican nobility with the show-down with organized labor and his no-compromise stance even though it was really never part of the platform that he ran on in 2010. It’s almost like he achieved conservative superstar status by declaring all-out war with Wisconsin public employees and figuratively staring down and taming “the beast.”
For a short while, there was even a bit of a buzz about a possible presidential run for Walker! What incredulity!
However, if one takes the time to lay the facts bare and strip off all the political doublespeak and rope-a-dope, whether focusing on Michigan, Ohio or Wisconsin, the dividing line seems crystal; these budgetary measures are a culmination of an ideological warfare that had been underway for months but which now simply got ratcheted-up to levels that are shrieking, inexpiable and unprecedented.
As equally true with both Ohio and Michigan, in Wisconsin, Walker has the onerous task of reconciling the GOP’s extension of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy with the plainly illogical decision to slash the take home pay of civil servants even as they are statutorily requiring them to bear more of their health care plan and pension costs; or the decision to reduce property taxes, the bedrock of local education funding, even as he was seeking a nearly $100 million reduction in state aid to education.
Depending on one’s perspective, as a prelude to the 2012 general elections, the experiments in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin signal the emergence of a new cadre of Republican/GOP leadership; one that is demonstrably gutsy, cold and brassbound. Alternatively, all current pretenses, platitudes and props notwithstanding, they may be seen as having the vulgar distinction of decimating or devouring the population that they portend to serve.