David Michael Miller
Gov. Scott Walker is running for a third term.
He hasn’t announced it yet, but his intentions are pretty obvious with even the most cursory glance at his proposed budget. Lots of new funding for K-12 schools and flat tuition rates this year for the UW System before a tuition cut in fall 2018 — just weeks before the next election.
The only way this budget could be more of a re-election ploy is if Walker included a line item to deliver free pancakes to every household in the state on Election Day.
While Walker is trying to buy his way into a third term, he has given Democrats a tremendous opportunity — school funding doesn’t have to be the biggest issue in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
In the 2012 recall and the 2014 election, schools were at the forefront. When Walker challengers Tom Barrett or Mary Burke talked about reinvesting in schools, the governor could turn around and frame it as a giveaway to teachers. To the average Wisconsinite, it looked like Democrats were more concerned with the well-being of teachers than anyone else.
It is important for a Democratic candidate to support public schools, but the last two gubernatorial races were dominated by that topic alone. Major issues that affect large numbers of Wisconsinites went ignored or were underdiscussed.
Of course, Democrats will still be asked how they would better fund Wisconsin’s schools. While they should be ready to discuss the inherent inequity in per-pupil funding and vouchers, these issues should not be the centerpiece of their campaigns or 30-second TV ads.
Walker is going to try to steer the conversation back to Act 10 whenever he can, ransoming new funds for schools until districts like Madison agree to have employees pay an arbitrary percentage of their benefit plan. But Democrats shouldn’t take Walker’s bait; they should set their own agenda and control the conversation, not just react to the funding cuts of the last several budget cycles.
Talk about raising wages. Start with an increase to the minimum wage. All of our neighbors except Iowa have raised their state minimum wage; come on, we should at least be able to do better than Iowa. Michigan even passed its wage increase under a Republican governor. If employers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can afford to pay workers $8.90 an hour, Wisconsin’s employers should be able to as well.
Instead of talking K-12, talk prenatal to 4. Day care is more expensive than college tuition in Wisconsin, putting us among the least affordable states in the nation when it comes to childcare. It is a tremendous burden for even middle-class Wisconsinites across many demographics.
Democrats need to make a comeback in rural western Wisconsin. Much of that area was pulled in by the promise of jobs and revenue created by frac sand mining. Now, the number of mines has exploded and longtime residents near the mines have seen their air quality plummet along with their property values. Give local residents more of a voice in the process.
But Democrats don’t need to just win back rural voters. They also need to boost turnout outside of Dane County. If Democrats want to improve voter turnout in the Milwaukee area, they need to have the courage to push for reform of our state’s criminal justice system. Our state faces the largest racial sentencing disparities in the nation, particularly in Milwaukee, where black offenders are prosecuted more often for nonviolent offenses than white offenders. We are sending people to prison, separating families for years at a time, for low-level drug crimes.
As a result, nonviolent offenders are filling up our prisons. Wisconsin is spending far more than our neighboring states on corrections. Not only are taxpayers footing the bill to keep these people locked up, we are losing out on potentially productive members of the workforce in a graying state that desperately needs more workers. Minnesota sends far fewer people to prison, opting instead for more alternatives to incarceration. Despite this “soft-on-crime” attitude, the land of 10,000 lakes has yet to descend into a lawless wasteland.
Finally, any Democratic gubernatorial candidate would be an absolute fool not to run on medical marijuana legalization. Democrats recently got a big boost on this issue from an unlikely source: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). Vos, arguably the most powerful member of the state Legislature, said last month he was open to legalization. There’s bipartisan support to move on it, and Walker is against it. That’s an opportunity.
With school funding on the backburner, all of these issues are opportunities for Democrats this time around. It’s up to the Democrats to take advantage of them.
Alan Talaga co-writes the Off the Square cartoon with Jon Lyons and blogs at Madland.