Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has taken a machete to the state’s budget and has clearly relished every swipe he’s taken to social programs and civil rights. The spirit of the enormous protests that sprang to life in February over Walker’s proposal to ban collective bargaining is stronger than ever. Thousands of people descended upon the Capitol this week to protest both Monday’s State Supreme Court decision to reinstate the collective bargaining ban and the governor’s proposed two-year budget, which includes hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts and is currently moving through the legislature.
Everything from health care to the right to vote is under attack, and with the next two-year budget currently under debate and a slew of controversial bills at different legislative stages, terrifying changes loom for 5.5 million Wisconsinites. Here are seven ways Wisconsin Republicans are waging war against the poor and working class people of Wisconsin.
1. The proposed budget contains so many terrible changes to BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s low-income health care program, that they could almost have their own list. Among the worst is a proposal to drop men from the program entirely, and a proposal to require parental consent before minors can get birth control pills. How are these two things connected? A representative for Pro-Life Wisconsin argued that the 7,000 men currently on BadgerCare don’t need subsidized access to STD testing and condoms because BadgerCare already provides contraception to women.
If young, poor women are discouraged from getting birth control because of parental consent laws and young, poor men have no access to low-cost medical care, there will be more sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies. It’s not a surprise that state-funded health care is at risk, but it’s much more common to see women’s reproductive care attacked than men’s.
2. A program to help adults with disabilities live independently faces an enrollment freeze in the new budget, which will leave nearly 17,000 men and women throughout the state without vital resources over the next two years. Family Care helps provide a wide range of services such as in-home care, supported living communities, meal delivery, and job training to help keep more than 31,000 people integrated with their communities; waiting lists for private resources like housing can be well over a decade. Cutting off enrollment in Family Care is a message from Scott Walker to men and women already disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination that in his eyes they’re less than human.
3. Different cities have different housing needs, right? Not according to a bill introduced by the State Senate. The measure would prohibit local governments from making laws related to landlord-tenant relationships. According to Madison’s Capitol Times, the bill would void a law that prevents landlords from discriminating against potential tenants because they are on public assistance. The bill’s lead author, Sen. Frank Lasee, has made no statements about what low-income families are supposed to do for housing when landlords are free to discriminate against them and the state budget has no money to help the homeless.
4. Scott Walker isn’t just targeting the city-dwelling poor; a budget provision would force the University of Wisconsin System to return $37 million in grant money that was intended to provide broadband access to rural communities. It would also prohibit the UW System from funding WiscNet, the cooperative that provides high-speed internet to most of the state’s schools and libraries. WiscNet could shut down without UW support, forcing towns that are already struggling to deal the governor’s other budget cuts to get service through private companies.
While it now looks like broadband access will be protected in some form thanks to last minute maneuvering in the Assembly, the budget amendment only postpones the planned restrictions until the next budget. If the amendment survives the Senate, it will be a temporary reprieve.
5. It makes sense that Wisconsin’s child labor laws would be stronger than the federal government's; the state has a long and proud history of protecting workers’ rights. It’s also no surprise that Walker and company are looking to repeal those laws. The legislature is set to vote on a bill that would roll back limits to the number of hours teenagers are allowed to work. The bill would bring Wisconsin in line with federal limits, but it’s hard to argue that allowing employers to have 16- and 17-year-olds work an unlimited number of hours up to seven days a week is really going to help young people.
Without these limits, bill supporters like the Wisconsin Grocers Association would be able to avoid all the headaches that come with hiring older, experienced workers who might demand perks like consistent hours or flexibility to care for family members and staff stores with low-paid teenagers who are likely to be unfamiliar with their workplace rights.
6. The Voter ID law that Scott Walker signed at the end of May is his evil genius masterpiece. What does a wildly unpopular governor facing a recall by thousands of highly motivated voters do? Pass a law disenfranchising the people planning to vote against you! Wisconsin used to have some of the most liberal voting requirements in the nation: same-day registration, no ID required. Starting in 2012, voters will have to present a valid driver’s license or approved photo ID before being allowed to vote.
According to a University of Milwaukee study, non-white Wisconsin voters are far less likely to have a valid driver’s license than white voters, and nearly a quarter of voters older than 65 lack one. This means thousands of elderly and men and women of color will be required to pay for new identification cards before they will be allowed to exercise their right to vote. There are four times as many people of color living in poverty as there are white people. Democratic State Senator Lena Taylor called it a poll tax, and she’s right.
7. Craft beer? What do the thousands of people without broadband, health care and voting rights care about craft beer? This is still Wisconsin, after all, and everyone deserves access to the good stuff. Why make it harder for small Wisconsin-based breweries to sell their beer? Small breweries are facing new obstacles to growth because of a turf war between two of the world’s biggest beer companies. MillerCoors asked for help defending against Anheuser-Busch’s attempts to do more business in Wisconsin, and the legislature obliged. A proposal in the budget would change state law to forbid brewers from owning a wholesale distribution business, which would slow Anheuser-Busch’s expansion, but it could also make it harder for smaller local companies to increase their sales around the state. Apparently Wisconsin is only open for MillerCoors’ business.
Opposition to Walker’s plans is strong enough that six Republican State Senators will face recall elections later this summer, and Democrats and progressive groups like Defend Wisconsin are already planning for a recall drive against Walker when he becomes eligible in January 2012. The Republican party’s stranglehold on Wisconsin’s state government means that Walker’s budget will almost surely pass, but the protests will not stop, and there is hope. If Democrats can win just three of those summer recall elections -- a totally plausible scenario -- they would regain control of the Senate and could stop further damage to the lives of Wisconsin’s citizens.