Budget Comes Down to Fear of Special Interests

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

 March 27, 2003

Even after watching the goings on at the State Capitol for over 20 years, there still is a lot that’s hard for me to fathom about politics and politicians.

But this much I know: Elected officials serve the public best when they serve in fear.

And I can tell you this: They don’t fear you. Not unless you have a habit of writing very large checks to political campaigns.

If you need convincing, look no further than the state budget bill. In January, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study identified $4.6 billion worth of tax breaks, pork barrel spending, sweetheart deals on state contracts and other perks that go to the biggest campaign donors.

Just two months after we issued the report, new state estimates of the value of the breaks pushed the total price tag of these political favors to $5 billion a year – or over $1,300 annually for each and every taxpayer in the state.

With the state facing a $3 billion-plus budget deficit, you’d think the fat cats would be asked to give up some of their ill-gotten gains.

You’d think.

The governor’s budget cuts $1 million of the $5 BILLION in political favors to big donors we identified in our study. That’s $1 million with an “m.” As in “measly.”

While special interests stand to lose two one-hundredths of 1 percent of their bounty, the budget is balanced on the backs of people who don’t bankroll political campaigns. UW students face a 19 percent increase in tuition – a hike of as much as $700 per year. Homeowners will pay higher property taxes and get fewer government services thanks to steep cuts in state aid to local communities that Republicans who control the legislature promise to make even steeper.

The corporations get to keep their prized property tax exemptions, so it’s ordinary homeowners who take it in the neck again when the governor proposes to break the state’s promise to fund two-thirds of school costs. To the extent local property taxpayers balk at paying more, the losers will be school children as already cash-strapped schools will have to scrimp even more.

Seniors who struggle to pay for costly prescription drugs face increases in fees and deductibles of up to 70 percent under proposed changes to the state’s SeniorCare program. Autistic children and their families face losing a therapy program that helps keep these youngsters out of institutions later in life. And 2,900 state workers stand to lose their jobs.

Maybe they can all go work in casinos. Las Vegas North gets a couple of hundred million dollars from the state’s Indian tribes to help balance the budget, and the tribes get a massive expansion of gaming in return. Actually it cost the tribes a bit more to get around-the-clock craps, roulette, off-track betting and anything else gamblers might care to wager on. They also pumped roughly $1 million into the Doyle campaign.

Understanding this budget is simple. It all comes down to fear. The governor’s race cost $23 million, and three-quarters of the money raised by the two major party candidates came from just over 1,100 people. The governor has reason to fear those people. In today’s give-to-get political environment, there’s no cause to fear college students or fixed-income seniors or autistic children.

Don’t count on the legislature righting any budget wrongs. State legislators don’t fear you either. Half of them ran uncontested in the last election, thanks to huge campaign war chests that scared off competition. The half who faced challengers went into the stretch drive of the 2002 campaign with $16 for every dollar their opponents had. Most of the money came from – you guessed it – the same people who now are not being asked to share in the pain of balancing the budget.

Democracy – what Lincoln famously called government of the people, by the people and for the people – depends on the accountability that springs from politicians’ fear of what will happen to them in the next election if they put the interests of a privileged few ahead of the common good.

We’ve lost that.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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