Photo by Gage Skidmore
It was a banner week for the billionaires who have invested in Governor Scott Walker, the Wisconsin state legislature and the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
On Sunday, July 12, Walker signed the financially austere, socially vindictive 2015-2017 budget that shifts hundreds of millions of dollars out of public schools into private, unaccountable charter and voucher schemes, deepens the consolidation of power in the Department of Administration, and keeps the tax credits and forgivable loans flowing to campaign donors and others through the ineffective Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
The following day, Walker formally announced his candidacy for U.S. President, vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and restore economic sanctions on Iran. Speaking to a frenzied crowd chanting, “USA! USA!” Walker touted his record as governor, tailoring the core of his message to potential donors: Tax cuts, deregulation, union busting.
On Wednesday, the Wisconsin state Senate passed a bill that puts taxpayers on the hook for financing half of the $500 million, tax-exempt arena for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. The co-chair of Walker’s campaign finance team, real estate mogul Jon Hammes, owns an undisclosed percentage of the team, as well as multiple plots of land in and around the new “sports and entertainment district.”
And to close the perfect circle, on Thursday morning, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered an end to the John Doe investigation into illegal coordination between Walker’s 2012 recall campaign and dark money groups, particularly the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. These very groups being investigated for illegal campaign activities had themselves funneled millions of dollars into the campaigns of the four justices who ruled in favor of the decision.
By the end of the day on Thursday, GOP legislative leaders were chomping at the bit to fire the director of the state’s election oversight board, and were seemingly taking steps toward eliminating it altogether. In a stunning display of projection, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said, “The citizens of Wisconsin have the right to know what laws are being broken behind closed doors at the very agency that is supposed to ensure accountability in government and elections.”
In January, 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision that greased the skids for vast sums of untraceable, unaccountable donations to flow into the campaign coffers of the most billionaire-friendly political candidates, enormous jackpots in government subsidies and tax breaks came up for grabs for those who could afford the ante.
Finance, real estate and energy industry moguls lavished princely sums on those candidates who promise to roll back public health and safety regulations, offer tax advantages to “job creators,” and open up new markets in the privatization of public goods like education, retirement funds and prisons.
But in and of themselves, such regressive policies that so clearly benefit the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us don’t constitute a winning electoral formula. After all, we are living in the aftermath of the financial crisis from which the publicly bailed-out banks emerged stronger than ever, but most working people continued to suffer loss of family wealth and declining standards of living.
To sell this plutocratic agenda to the masses, or at least to a slim majority of the voting masses, the GOP and their media outlets did what they do best: Rev up the propaganda machine and dress up their initiatives in simplistic, fear-based rhetoric and faux populism.
To conservative billionaire donors, the Scott Walker package combines demonstrated loyalty of a hatchet man willing to advance, champion and bully legislators into voting for policies that allow corporations to extract the maximum value out of labor, land and natural resources at minimum cost, with a mild-mannered persona that can take shape around whatever position is polling well on any given day.
As former state Senator Bob Jauch said of Walker recently, “He has an altar boy’s appearance, but Darth Vader writes his policies.” Wealthy donors seem to like that about him.
The opening lines of Walker’s announcement speech appealed to the interests of the donors first, followed up with some red meat tossed to his voters: “We took on the unions and we won! We lowered taxes by $2 billion. We passed lawsuit reform, regulatory reform. We defunded Planned Parenthood and passed pro-life legislation. We enacted Castle Doctrine and Concealed Carry so we can protect ourselves, our family, and our property. And we now require a photo ID to vote in this state.”
The (mostly white, mostly male) crowd went wild.
Last year some emails from the John Doe investigation were released into the public record. One of those described a $700,000 donation to Wisconsin Club for Growth from Gogebic Taconite, billionaire Chris Cline’s iron mining company that helped draft a major re-write of Wisconsin’s mining laws. This revelation, along with a separate email dump from Walker’s office that was the result of an open records request, showed how willing and able the Walker administration had been to allow wealthy corporations to plunder the wealth of the state, even if it resulted in social and ecological ruin.
But simply getting away with these pay-to-play schemes isn’t enough for the plutocrats, so now the campaign finance and open records laws that gave the public access to those kinds of details are under attack.
Republican legislators tried to slip a provision gutting the state’s open records law into the state budget at the last minute, but massive outcry from the public and press – even the most conservative elements – forced Walker’s allies to abandon that proposal.
In Thursday’s Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to halt the John Doe investigation of Walker’s associates, the majority ordered the prosecution to return all seized evidence and destroy any copies.
The upward redistribution of wealth and the apparent abandonment of a social contract with the people by the government of Wisconsin over the past four years has taken a toll on our schools, our water, our local governments’ ability to maintain basic public services, and many people’s ability to earn a living and raise healthy children. How much further can struggling communities can be degraded before they push back in a meaningful way?