Wisconsin's GOP Escalates Its War on the Poor

On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's declaration of war on poverty, Republicans on the Wisconsin State Budget Committee made it their mission to hammer the poor as hard as possible.

First, they refused to spend any of the state's available federal funds on income-support programs. Then they passed a bill that will prevent an estimated 2,500 more people from enrolling in BadgerCare, the state’s Medicaid-funded program for lower-income people. With those concerns dismissed, they agreed to spend millions more on an agency that Governor Scott Walker created specifically to give taxpayer money away to corporations.

Walker’s refusal to accept an estimated $4 billion in Medicaid funds over the next several years has created massive technical and administrative problems for the state’s Department of Health Services. These complicated issues required the legislature to meet in special session last month to pass laws that “fix” the issues created by Walker’s obstinance. Turning down these funds means that 85,000 people will lose coverage through Badger Care and will have to purchase their own insurance.

A 15 percent increase in people receiving income support benefits in 2013 has led to an estimated shortfall of $25 million for the program through June 2015. But instead of fully funding the program, the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee voted to cover a little over a third of the shortfall, returning $1.3 million to the state’s general fund.

At the same time, the committee decided to release $44 million to the troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), an agency created by the Walker Administration to grow the 250,000 jobs he promised to create. However, WEDC has been sharply criticized for gross mismanagement and legal violations. The agency also has a poor track record, with 16 of its 26 programs failing to meet their goals (PDF) in the last fiscal year.

The WEDC also ran into difficulties in 2013 when it failed to increase business loans, accumulating a large surplus. WEDC CEO Reed Hall claims that tax credits are much more attractive to companies wanting to do business in the state than the agency's loans, which he believes are a more difficult sell due to competition from commercial banks.

Hall also said that WEDC was focused on attracting “global international companies,” and that he wished we had “the large multinational companies in Milwaukee like they have in Minneapolis.” He announced the roll-out of a TV ad campaign in neighboring states, saying that “the friendly political and regulatory climate” in Wisconsin is a strong selling point to corporations. “If taxes were lower, that would be another thing we could sell,” he added.

Of course, Republicans voted to fully fund the agency's request, including an additional $3.7 million for advertising. Democrats on the committee objected and urged their colleagues to wait to release the funds until the Legislative Audit Bureau completes it’s work later this year, pointing out that the money would be better spent supporting local economic development agencies that have a proven track record of success. Their concerns fell on deaf ears.

Wisconsin led the nation in new unemployment claims last November. As the ranks of the jobless and people living in or near poverty swell, casualties in the political and economic war against them will also increase. Unfortunately, Wisconsin Republicans are actively shredding the fabric of our already threadbare social safety net, ensuring that our fellow citizens' pain will persist.

Just how long this trend can continue before an organized resistance is mounted is anyone's guess.

Photo: "Homeless and sad little girl," via Shutterstock.