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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blogging the Milwaukee County Labor Council hearing on the state budget

by folkbum

Once again, I lament that Serb Hall lacks WiFi. Sigh.

The turnout was excellent; at its fullest, I'd guess the forum had about 250 people there, including youth groups, labor groups, and regular people. Former alumni of this blog Bryan Kennedy and Sarah Fadness were there, and's David Wise was tip-typing away behind me. (When his write-up is available, I'll link to it.)

I know that the people who put this hearing together are not always friendly to the Republican Party, but even though all Milwaukee County legislators were invited, not a single one of the seven who attended belonged to the GOP. Which is too bad, because here we had really only one side represented, and there were some tough questions that the GOP needed to be there to answer.

The questions were, unsurprisingly, labor-based, and designed to challenge, head-on, the budget passed by the Assembly GOP. And the panelists certainly played to the partisan crowd. They were Senator Lena Taylor, and Representatives Pedro Colón, Fred Kessler, Peggy Krusick, Jon Richards, Barbara Toles, and My State Representative, Josh Zepnick.

Because I wasn't able to live blog, I took a lot of cryptic notes about what went on, which I can send to anyone if you want them. I'll just hit the highlights--most of which came from Pedro Colón. His experience on the Joint Finance Committee and sitting through the Assembly debate (such as it was) gave him insight into the Assembly's budget and the thinking, if you can call it that, of the Assembly GOP.

For example, the very first question was about whether or not Milwaukee was a target of the GOP budget. Colón ran the litany of what the Assembly budget does to the city: Cuts in shared revenue, cuts to K-12 that hurt MPS (including a JFC provision that gave $15m to support successful math and science programs), cuts to technical colleges including $12m to MATC, and more. Cutting MATC's budget, he said, only makes sense to people who want to destroy Milwaukee. He put it even more bluntly toward the end: "They want to kill our city."

The GOP went behind closed doors, Colón said, and came out with a massive packet and eight hours before the voting started.

Colón said the the GOP budget was balanced "by getting rid of the rule that we have to balance the budget." He explained the Republicans' corporate favoritism with the great line, "We can control Fallujah but we can't tax an oil company." He explained what any number of Democratic legislators have told me so far, which is that the Republican budget was a show budget, that it was a budget for the next election, not for governing. He said the GOP were proud of what they had done, especially in sticking it to Milwaukee: "They're absolutely proud that they passed a budget that contains every retrograde idea imaginable--I wish you could see their faces."

Even on an audience question about in-state tuition for undocumented students graduating from Wisconsin high schools, he identified it as a slap at Milwaukee: Students here who work their butts off to get good grades and succeed--isn't that what we want our students to do?--who are vital and committed members of their communities. can't even get the tuition rates their neighbors get. We're not talking free rides here, just in-state tuition!

Colón was not the only one with applause lines. Jon Richards spoke up early about Healthy Wisconsin, reminding everyone in the room that the Democratic Senate put forward a comprehensive plan to cover everyone in the state, while the GOP thinks the status quo is good enough. Richards wondered aloud why the GOP would include a tax break for people who deal gold bullion, but cut the School for Work at the UW-Extension.

Barbara Toles, as a former UW and MATC staffer, was sympathetic to the plight of MATC and the UW in the Assembly budget. She supported the notion of allowing UW faculty to organize and bargain collectively should they choose to--something professors in most other states have the right to do--and she got applause with the line, "I cannot speak to Republican family values because I cannot even fathom what they were thinking of" when they cut the Wisconsin Shares program that helps working families afford day care for their children.

Josh Zepnick perhaps had the most concise criticism of the Assembly GOP budget: "The Republicans have people in charge who think they know the cost of everything but don't know the value of anything."

Fred Kessler came in late (he beat Peggy Krusick who got there basically just as Sheila Cochrane of the MCLC was thanking the panelists for their time), but he made some pretty emphatic points about the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, a subject I spend a lot of time on here. He reminded us that the Assembly GOP took out the fix that would have eased the burden on Milwaukee taxpayers for the state: Every $100,000 in home value, he reminded us, costs a Milwaukee homeowner an extra $150 for vouchers.

Lena Taylor was perhaps the most fiery. Both she and Richards have been rumored for the County Executive job (asked about it after the panel, Taylor demurred, saying she couldn't do it without the money it would take), and judging by what she said and how she said it, she could easily gain support from a traditional Democratic base for that non-partisan race.

She, like Colón, had a lot of raw passion and, frankly, anger about the way the budget process has gone and what the Assembly GOP is trying to do to Milwaukee. She flat-out called Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch "an a-hole" (she used the euphemism, that's not me cleaning it up) and at one point stood up to emphasize her points.

In particular, she was angry about the way the GOP budgets targets areas of the state that voted for Jim Doyle: Milwaukee, Beloit, Racine, and Superior. It was in that context--especially complaining about cuts in shared revenue aimed at those cities--that the "a-hole" comment flew. She was furious about the bait-and-switch Republicans pulled on MPS funding, about Republicans' provision limiting how many ballots Milwaukee County could print for elections, about the short-sighted nature of the cuts to MATC and UW. "If they [the Republicans] don't like what you're doing, they will punish you," she said.

And that seemed to be the general tenor of the evening: Everyone, from the questioners to the legislators to the audience was in agreement that the GOP was screwing workers, screwing Milwaukee, screwing students, screwing the future of the state--all for a show budget.

Which is why it was frustrating to me not to have anyone there who could have spoken for the other side. Where was Alberta Darling? Mary Lazich? Where was Leah Vukmir? Where was Mark Honadel? Former weatherman Jim Ott--surely he knows how to work a crowd? (And so on.) Admittedly, not all the Milwaukee County Dems were there; but that no one from the GOP side was willing to come to the table and explain why what looks to us like screwing Milwaukee County is not really that, why what looks to us like a show budget isn't really for show.

I don't know. Perhaps the GOP is still stuck behind its closed doors.

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