State Republicans and lobbyists went into a back room to work out a budget deal this week, and guess who the big losers were?
Yup. Ordinary Wisconsinites.
The deal involved expanding school vouchers statewide, in exchange for a modest per-pupil spending increase for public school students.
Now, it's terribly important to Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other Republican beneficiaries of big-time campaign spending from school-choice groups to get a deal on vouchers. Voucherizing public education is a national conservative cause. And if Walker can say he busted public employee unions and siphoned public-school money into private schools, he looks like a pretty radical reformer to the right-wing billionaires who might take an interest in his national political career.
A whole lot of Republicans in Wisconsin have gotten hooked on the money thrown around in our elections by groups like the American Federation for Children. But representatives of small, rural districts in our Legislature - including a few key Republicans - were not so keen on the idea of a school voucher expansion.
For one thing, the schools have not recovered from the massive ax Walker took to education funding in his last budget. The current budget offered no increase in per-pupil spending, and a voucher program added to the problem, draining money from public schools to subsidize private-school kids' tuition.
In rural districts with low enrollment, that could easily mean saying goodbye to the local school, along with Friday night football games, musicals and the whole organizing force behind a lot of communities.
So Republicans on both sides of the issue went into a back room along with school-choice lobbyists.
"There must have been a lot of dislocated elbows," Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said at the Democrats' Monday afternoon press conference in the Capitol.
The deal that emerged is a big win for Walker and the school-choice lobby, and a big, big loss for public education, the poor and the middle class in Wisconsin.
Republican holdouts including Mike Ellis and Luther Olsen seem to have accepted an increase of $150 in funding per pupil in exchange for taking vouchers statewide. Keep in mind that the per-pupil cut in the last budget was $575 per student.
The Department of Public Instruction estimates that the statewide voucher expansion will ultimately drain $1.9 billion out of the public school system every year. That's a pretty bad trade for a one-time increase that makes up for a little less than one-fourth of last year's cut.
Worse, once we get vouchers, it's unlikely that we will ever get rid of them.
Just look at Milwaukee, where vouchers have been in place on an "experimental" basis for 23 years. Despite test results showing that voucher students fare worse than their public-school peers in math and reading, the "experiment" is never over. And now we are upsizing this failed program to the entire state.
The voucher expansion is part of a budget that "takes money out of things that help the poor and middle class and redistributes the money to the wealthy," as Cory Mason, Democrat of Racine, put it. That includes a Medicaid plan that cuts back medical insurance for the poor and a tax deal that benefits high earners.
"This is a tax plan that by and large will benefit people who make well into the six figures," Barca pointed out.
Under the plan, people making between $14,000 and $319,000 would pay a flat tax starting in 2015. Paying one flat-tax rate obviously benefits the corporate executive making $314,00 a year (who gets a $2,567 cut) more than the cashier making $14,000 a year (who gets a $9 cut).
A whole lot of middle-class people making between $30,000 and $60,000 will actually see a tax increase. And the budget plan will increase the structural deficit by $163 million. Some deal.
"We're stealing money from K-12 education to pay for a tax plan that benefits the rich," Mason said.
That about sums it up.
The Democrats had offered an alternative budget plan that included an increase in public-school funding by a minimum of $275 per pupil; no voucher expansion; accepting federal funds for BadgerCare so poor and middle-class Wisconsinites can still get medical insurance; and a progressive tax structure. It went nowhere in the Joint Finance Committee dominated by Republicans.
At the Democrats' press conference, one guy wanted to know if they would form a commission to study the problems posed by the Republicans' budget. Mason replied, "We get these big omnibus bills and they tell us, 'Oh, by the way, the vote is in 30 minutes.'"
Neither the Democrats in the Legislature nor the public has time to read the whole bill, much less study it. That's by design. Because if the public had a chance to learn all that was happening inside the Capitol as the Legislature pushes through this budget, it would take a whole lot more than a little arm-twisting to force it on them.