Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker hit a new low in political theatre last night at his 2015 State of the State address. With no meaningful accomplishments to boast of, he resorted to some of the cheapest tricks in the political orator’s book. Walker opened by pandering to the military, then plucked the heartstrings of Green Bay Packers fans fresh off a playoff victory, moved on to reciting the names of people who thanked him for lowering their taxes, and closed the speech by using the word “freedom” seven times in eight sentences.
Walker capped off the mind-numbing speech with a beloved rhetorical device, the climactic tricolon: “God bless you. God bless the great state of Wisconsin. And may God bless freedom-loving people all over the world.”
“How about those Packers?”
Yes, that's what he said, just after asking people to pray for the men and women serving in the National Guard. It’s right there in the printed version of the speech handed out to GOP legislators, which also includes stage direction for when they are expected to applaud.
The 24-minute speech included only two specific initiatives: The merging of several state agencies and the announcement that he has directed the Attorney General to prepare a lawsuit against the EPA’s new carbon emission standards for coal-fired power plants.
The bulk of the speech was filled with contradictory statements about public education, misleading assertions about taxes and the state of the economy, and ideological statements about regulation and the size of government.
Walker strongly supported the rights of local school districts to control the curriculum taught in their schools as he tipped his hat to Tea Party constituents: “I call on the members of the state Legislature to pass legislation making it crystal clear that no school district in the state is required to use Common Core standards . . . Standards should be set by people from within Wisconsin––and preferably at the local level.”
But moments before that Walker signaled support for a contentious bill that would completely eliminate the authority of local school boards over schools that were deemed to be “failing” by turning them into charter schools unaccountable to local taxpayers and authorized by a politically appointed body at the state level.
Walker likes taking credit for lowering property taxes and last night was no exception. In his first term he championed restrictions on how much money local units of government can raise through a levy, but those restrictions haven’t helped communities. The caps have put the squeeze on school districts, cities, towns, and counties at a time when state aids to local governments have also been slashed.
But the $141 a year that Walker claims the average homeowner is saving in property taxes in no way compensates for the drastic reduction in public services and educational supports that communities are now dealing with. Rural areas are hit especially hard.
In many neighborhoods lower property taxes means that home values are slipping––a sign that the general economy is degrading, not recovering.
But when Scott Walker says “taxpayer” what he really means is “large property owner” or “millionaire investor”––people who can afford to send their kids to expensive private schools, don’t use public transportation or other public amenities, and have private security systems installed on their property. People for whom individual tax savings are much more significant and whose lives aren’t affected by the devastation of public services.
Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) put it in even stronger language. “In Milwaukee, innocent kids are dying, our children lack access to basic human necessities, and our neighbors struggle to find jobs to provide food and housing for their families,” he said in a statement released after the address.
“Tonight, the State of the State address could have addressed these real problems facing Milwaukee communities, along with issues that matter to everyday families across the state. Instead, Wisconsin Republicans clearly remain hell-bent on fiscally and morally bankrupt policies that give away our money to their special interest friends, put extreme ideology before our health and economic security, and decimate our local public schools.”
Positioning himself for a Presidential run, Walker waxed ideological about the role of government. "I believe that government has grown too big and too intrusive in our lives and must be reined in,” he said. The irony wasn’t lost on women’s health advocates, who were quick to remind followers on social media that Walker supported laws that interfere with a woman’s relationship with her doctor, and mandate some of the most physically intrusive medical procedures for women seeking an abortion.
The general public was not allowed into the public galleries to watch the speech. Only people who obtained tickets from their legislators could attend. Most of the crowd seemed to be strong Walker supporters, but not all of them were.
One retired teacher decided to act like a fanatical supporter of Walker and his policies to gauge the response of the crowd. When he delivered this line to the applause of the audience, “We empowered local school boards to hire and fire based on merit and pay based on performance,” she shouted, “Fire the teachers! Fire the teachers!” Her neighbors in the gallery looked at her, smiled, and kept on clapping.
A young man who deigned to shout “boo” at Walker from the gallery wasn’t so lucky. He was hauled out by police, given a citation for disorderly conduct, and ordered out of the building.
Outside of the Assembly chambers, Walker and his guests were greeted with banners and songs expressing other opinions about the State of the State: “Welcome to Tonight’s Pants on Fire event Brought to You by the Koch Brothers,” “Prosperity = Good Public Schools, Clean Air + Water, Fair Pay + Benefits, Access to Healthcare, Democracy (e.g. Voting Rights) WALKER’S NOT WORKING,” and “THANK YOU SCOTT WALKER from -Millionaires -Fossil Fuel Industry -Insurance Companies -Charter Schools -Prison Industry.”
The 300 arrests of people singing in the Capitol rotunda aside, Scott Walker is a staunch defender of freedom of speech. He said so at the end of his address, which he used to denounce terrorists, who, he claims, are afraid of freedom.
“They are afraid of those who have the freedom of the press. They are afraid of freedom of speech. They are afraid of freedom of religion. Tonight, we must stand together––Democrat and Republican––and denounce those who wish to threaten freedom anywhere in this world. We need to proclaim that an attack against freedom-loving people anywhere is an attack against us all. And we will not allow it. When we do, we will make it easier to work for freedom and prosperity––right here in Wisconsin."
Rebecca Kemble is a contributing writer for The Progressive.