First of all, I hope everyone out there is safe and sound after the snowy wallop of the last couple of days. It's nothing hardy Wisconsinites can't handle, of course, but there are always unforeseen complications and problems when over a foot of snow gets dumped in such a short span of time. Secondly, I hope most of you got to enjoy a proper snow day yesterday!
But we've got politics to talk now, since Gov. Scott Walker didn't cancel his State of the State speech because of said blizzard.
As I was reading over the text of the speech I was struck by how much it reminded me of an essay written by someone who hadn't really done the research and was trying desperately to fill up the required space by repeating the same ideas over and over, just with somewhat different wording.
Walker spent a not insubstantial amount of time on the introduction and thanks, but then made sure to earn points by referencing the Packers going to the Super Bowl something like six times.
He spent the rest of the speech giving an overview of the very real problems facing our state -- the unemployment rate, the budget deficit, the struggle to create jobs and build a 21st century economy --but saying very little about how he actually plans to address all of that. And then there were a whole lot of platitudes about needing to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and kick butt, etc., etc.
In fact, the only real specifics mentioned were his desire to make public employees contribute more toward their benefits, decrease taxes on and government regulation of business, and a reference to the tort reform law he succeeded in having passed last month.
None of that will actually do much to help create jobs in Wisconsin, of course. Quite a lot of it will actually hurt residents, too.
Pretty much everybody else has had their say, but I'm going to start from the last item and work my way back anyway: Tort reform. Walker made this a big priority in the special session of the Legislation called as soon as he took office. He claimed, over and over, that "frivolous lawsuits" are the "one of the most important elements" listed by businesses/employers when "considering expanding and investing in the state."
In the speech, he claimed that "The litigation environment in a state is one of the key drivers for business and unfortunately we were once known as 'Alabama North' because of our poor lawsuit climate."
Thing is, Walker's dead wrong. Even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel PolitiFact site (known for being generally more sympathetic toward right-leaning politicians) rated his claims flat-out false:
In trying to tie the lawsuit reforms to job creation, Walker asserted the issue is "one of the most important factors" when businesses are deciding to expand or invest in Wisconsin. That's a major overreach. He cited a series of national surveys, which show it's a concern but lack Wisconsin data and don't weigh how the concern stacks up against other issues. In the surveys of state businesses we found, lawsuit reform is on the radar screen -- but a blip behind taxes, regulation and other issues.
What's worse, the legislation has opened the door to serious abuse toward some of our most vulnerable citizens. As pointed out in this excellent op-ed by Lynn Breedlove, Kristina Finnel and Al Majkrzak, the law severely limits the ability of victims and families of elder abuse in care facilities to seek justice or hold abusers accountable:
This bill is broad and sweeping: It affects a range of settings and people, including children and adults with disabilities, veterans with brain injury, individuals with mental illness and the elderly. Because this bill removes the ability to use incident (factual) reports in court, the only facts available to a family may be the testimony of the abuse victim, who may be unable to share his or her experience. Because this bill removes the ability to charge a care provider criminally under certain circumstances, and denies even the district attorney from using all available information, a family will have a slim chance of a case, much less a favorable verdict. [Emphasis mine.]
This means that the people who have already suffered at the hands of negligent operators now have little recourse -- in seeking justice for those killed, or in getting help paying for long-term medical care associated with their injuries (which means it gets passed on to taxpayers via Medicare, etc).
This bill doesn't help create jobs, and any lower costs for businesses that might result would appear to be primarily related to letting negligent companies continue cutting costs, safety and oversight. So why on Earth was this something Walker fought so hard for, and why did the Republican controlled Legislature vote it through?
On to decreasing taxes and regulations on businesses, then: I'm in agreement that there are definitely places where taxes could be lessened and regulations simplified to make running a good business a little easier and more affordable. Walker and I would likely butt heads over the specifics, though (if he'd bother to actually spell any out).
There are plenty of loopholes and unevenly applied rules that do much to benefit the companies least in need of assistance, all while unduly burdening those that actually could use the help. Fixing those problems and creating a playing field where everyone actually pays their fair share could go a long way toward fixing the deficit without stripping essential services.
There's no silver bullet, of course -- despite what Walker's oversimplified speeches might have you believe. But we could start by finding a way to actually collect sales tax on online purchases, something that could bring in as much as $150 million a year.
The Institute for Wisconsin's Future recently released a document (PDF) highlighting several areas within the state's property tax laws that could stand for scrutiny and change. I don't know that I agree with all of them, but I would concur that at least taking a fine-tooth comb over everything mentioned would be in our best interests.
- Finding a better way to ensure that those organizations exempted from paying property taxes for being "benevolent" actually have a sufficient level of community benefit (a fine line, to be sure) and aren't simply taking advantage.
- Ensuring that land is assessed at its fair market value, and that tricks like "fake farming" aren't used on commercial or residential land so that landowners can get the lower agricultural tax rate (Terrence Wall is familiar with this method).
- Consolidate and modernize the property assessment process in the state, per recommendations made by the Department of Revenue, helping to increase consistency and transparency within the laws and exemptions. This would also help even the playing field between wealthier businesses and cash-strapped communities in terms of codifying the law to make sure everyone actually pays their fair share.
- Reform the way property tax exemptions are created. They should be "subject to ongoing review with definitive ending dates unless they are approved for renewal. New exemptions should be scrutinized for relevance and impact with a sunset date included in the legislation."
If this kind of reform is necessary with sales and property taxes alone, I can only imagine what the situation is like when it comes to other forms of corporate taxation. Unfortunately, and thanks to Walker's so-far hazy language, it's impossible to know for sure, I suspect he's not all that interested in a truly level playing field and these sorts of changes aren't what he's looking to do.
If his past actions are anything to go off, it's more likely Walker is looking to further erode environmental protections, decrease taxes for those businesses with the strongest (financial) ties to his administration, and choke off funding for things like education, safety, and comprehensive health care.
And helping Wisconsin build a competitive, 21st Century economy? You'll forgive me if I doubt the man's sincerity. Despite the call in his speech to create a "strong transportation network," Walker killed plans to build a network of high-speed rail lines that would have connected our state not only with itself, but with the Midwest and, eventually, the country at large.
Maybe there's a good reason why Walker left out any substantial details in his speech, though: Any that do exist are based on bad math and bad logic, and the rest he's just hoping to wing.