Planes, trains, and autocrats
Ask just about anyone in the state of Wisconsin (or, heck, the nation) what the number one priority for our elected representatives ought to be, and I'd be willing to bet an overwhelming majority would say creating jobs. It's the stupid economy, stupid.
So when Republicans won control of all three branches of state government last Tuesday, one could only assume it was because the people thought they were the party that would most effectively tackle the problems of the recession.
Why is it, then, that so many prominent GOP politicians are talking up just about every issue but jobs?
The most obvious example of this misdirection of priorities comes from governor-elect Scott Walker, who has made deep-sixing the Madison to Milwaukee rail line into his cause célèbre. For some reason, the very thought of a train between the two major metropolitan centers of the state really twists the panties of Walker and his supporters. This despite the fact that the project has already created jobs and will continue to do so in the future -- for the hard-hit construction sector, as well as positions related to the continued operation and maintenance of the line.
A great deal of speculation, not to mention a serious hue and cry, has gone on since the Doyle administration announced a temporary suspension of all activities to do with the line the day after the election. Are the Democrats giving in to Republican fears and demands? While no official word has come down from on high regarding the exact reasons for the move, one can infer quite a lot from what Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi had to say about it:
In light of the election results, our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped.
My educated guess, based on that statement and the fact that the feds and Doyle's administration worked hard to slip through final contract signings for the project just days before the election, is that Busalacchi is laying it out plain: The Dems will use the stall to point out what a monumentally bad decision canceling the project would be, shaming the new Republican administration into seeing it through (basically, calling their bluff). Because the fact is that canceling would, it now appears, cost the state a serious chunk of change in terms of broken contracts, lost jobs, and lost tax revenue collected from business brought to the area specifically by/for the train.
Talgo, the Spanish company that moved to the Milwaukee area in order to manufacture the train cars that would be used on the line, may well move to a more rail-friendly state should Walker kill the line here. This possibility was scary enough for Walker to back-pedal a little on his campaign promise and call Talgo to encourage (beg?) them to stay in Wisconsin regardless, and that his decision on the train here was "not final."
Of course, Talgo and other companies like it will go to the states they perceive to be the most friendly to their work -- and if Walker continues down the path of anti-rail hysteria, it's entirely likely they'll move somewhere else (like Oregon, for whom they're already building trains). If Walker could step away from the rhetoric for a minute, though, he'd see what a boon this project could be for Wisconsin -- not just because of rail lines in the state, but because mass transit is likely to be the wave of the future for the entire country, and Wisconsin could become the manufacturing powerhouse that builds it.
All of that and it will cost zero dollars of state money for the construction of the new line, since the feds are footing the entire $810 million bill (this thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
Critics, of course, point to the operations costs that would still fall to the state -- ignoring the fact that we already foot the bill for a crumbling and increasingly inefficient highway system, where financing mass transit would do far more to decrease congestion and our environmental footprint. It's called wise investing for the long-term -- something I can only assume Walker and his ilk know little about.
It's also worth noting that those yearly operating costs are only "projected at $7.5?million a year, starting in 2013. A state transportation official has said state taxpayers' share could be as little as $750,000 a year if federal aid covers 90% of operating costs, as it does for Amtrak's existing Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line." That's hardly a crippling burden.
Walker has said he wants to "redirect" the federal money to our roads and bridges -- not surprising, coming from a guy who directly benefited from a $25,000 donation from the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, a group that also threw then-candidate Walker a fundraiser in sunny Florida last March.
The problem is that the federal money is earmarked specifically for high-speed rail projects and is not at all available to be redirected to roads. The money would simply be gone -- or given to New York, if Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo gets his wish.
Walker's anti-train crusade is also an interesting flip-flop, considering Rep. Scott Walker voted in favor of Gov. Tommy Thompson's $50 million budget appropriation for a rail line between Madison and Milwaukee back in 1993, and then again in '97.
An unwelcome distraction
And speaking of focusing on issues other than actual job creation, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) has said that his number one priority now that he's won re-election will be to pass a law requiring citizens to show a photo ID before being allowed to vote.
Even though the incidents of voter fraud in the state are miniscule, and a photo ID requirement would disproportionately disenfranchise elderly, poor and minority voters. I'd ask someone to tell me again why this has been such a big talking point for the GOP recently, but I'm pretty sure I just answered my own question. (By the way, there is middle ground on this issue.)
Also, Walker and Attorney General Van Hollen would like to join in the national Republican effort to kill the health care overhaul, a move that most economists seem to agree would add billions of dollars to the deficit. Not to mention (OK, I'm going to mention it) that Republicans have yet to field any credible plans for tackling the problem of skyrocketing health care costs and all the other issues with the current system.
On a more local level, the GOP is also keen to do some slashing and burning on BadgerCare, screwing low-income families across the state out of what little health care they currently have.
What does any of this do to help create jobs, attract good business to the state, and keep citizens/workers healthy and educated enough to compete on a national and global level?
Yeah, I don't know either.