Kurt Bauer, CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, recently outlined WMC’s priorities for 2015-16, including tax cuts and “right-to-work.” WMC has spent millions to elect Gov. Scott Walker and allied politicians in the state Legislature and Supreme Court, and the business group has gotten one item after another on its wish list since 2011.
However, WMC’s not-so-invisible hand guiding state government hasn’t steered us to economic prosperity. Job growth in Wisconsin from January 2011 to October 2014 was only 64 percent of the national rate over the same period. Wage growth for the same period was just 71 percent of the national average. Under the WMC agenda, Wisconsin has performed significantly worse than the United States as a whole. Yet WMC’s political investments will likely pay off as legislators continue to push WMC’s agenda as their own.
First on WMC’s wish list is the so-called right-to-work law. This doesn’t create a legal right to work if you need a job. Rather, it outlaws “closed-shop” union contracts requiring employees to join unions. This allows new hires to benefit from union-won wage and benefit increases without paying union dues, weakening unions’ ability to negotiate further gains. WMC uses language of “worker freedom,” but their real objective is driving down wages and benefits so more profits go to the top. In fact, an Economic Policy Institute study found that workers in right-to-work states make an average of $1,500 less per year. The bottom line: Right-to-work means “work for less.”
Another top WMC priority is cutting the highest income tax bracket from 7.65 percent to 6.27 percent for individuals making at least $240,190 per year or couples making at least $320,250. That would be an annual windfall of thousands of dollars for the wealthiest. Is this economic stimulus — or a way for WMC-sponsored legislators to pay back their wealthy benefactors with interest?
Objective economic studies, including a recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, have found that tax cuts for the wealthy have negligible impact on economic growth. They are, however, connected with rising inequality, and have direct impacts on budgets, like the 2011-13 state budget that cut $1.8 billion from public education. That budget’s tax cuts for the wealthy failed to boost Wisconsin’s lackluster job growth.
WMC is also targeting Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act, which includes several provisions that the federal FMLA doesn’t, like allowing leave to care for domestic partners. Apparently Bauer thinks big business can’t thrive unless we force people to choose between caring for sick family members and working to put food on the table.
Having gutted regulations on iron mining, WMC now wants the state to pre-empt local governments from regulating frac sand mining. Concerns about sand mining include lost farmland, plunging property values, and environmental contamination by carcinogenic silica dust. Like the proposed Penokee Hills pit mine favored by WMC, frac sand mining threatens long-term devastation of our land and water, the lifeblood of Wisconsin’s agriculture and tourism sectors.
Bauer notes that Wisconsin needs skilled workers; indeed, thousands of college-educated young people leave the state every year. But if Wisconsinites want to keep young people from leaving, the first thing we should do is discard WMC’s recommendations for dragging our state backward. We should support the new economy sectors that WMC has spurned, like renewable energy, and cooperate with the federal government to expand health care coverage and mass transit. Rather than sacrificing our health, environment and economic future to further enrich those who need it least, Wisconsin should take steps to build an economy that will create prosperity and well-being for all.
Dave Schwab is the outreach director for Wisconsin Wave. Schwab@WisconsinWave.org.Democracy SquareWisconsin WaveDemocracy SquareDemocracy SquareWisconsin Wave