The warning signs are starting to pop up with regularity these days.
They are beginning to show just where Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP-dominated Legislature are taking Wisconsin in the not-too-distant future.
Unfortunately, those signs aren’t painting a pretty picture.
But let’s face it. You can’t take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the public schools or make the middle class pick up the slack for lower business taxes or curtail local governments’ ability to make their own decisions or reduce the pay of already-struggling wage earners and not have an impact on the economic, educational and cultural health of the state.
Only a couple of weeks ago, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the exodus of high-profile school superintendents in Milwaukee area suburban districts. The unusually high number deciding to call it quits is being attributed to state legislation that has not only changed the power structure in the school districts but reduced the resources available to superintendents to effectively run them.
Then there’s the story out of Janesville, where 17 veteran teachers — with between 10 and 43 years of experience — announced after Christmas they’re leaving at the end of the school year because they face the loss of benefits on July 1 when their union contract expires. Janesville is just the latest of scores of school districts across the state that have lost quality employees since the Walker “reforms” were enacted. They may indeed be saving some money with lower pension and health insurance payments and beginning teachers at entry-level salaries, but it’s coming at the cost of losing some of their best staff members.
Not all local governments, though, are necessarily saving money. There’s the news, for instance, out of Ozaukee County, a hotbed of Walker support. Turns out the county sheriff’s department is being forced to pay thousands of dollars in overtime each week to cover vacancies brought on by the sudden departure of seven deputies late last year. The seven quit because of the changes in their fringe benefits.
Apparently inspired by Walker’s cutbacks in pension and health care coverage for all non-law-enforcement public employees, the county decided to cut back on the deputies as well. Now it turns out that it’s having to pay overtime every day because the vacancies have yet to be filled.
The chairwoman of the county’s public safety committee told the Ozaukee Press that she was saddened by the loss of some very good people and a lot of experience.
Meanwhile, there are also growing concerns that the gap between the rich and poor in Wisconsin, which has historically been not as bad as in most of the nation, is starting to spread here as well. Billions more in wealth are ending up in the hands of the top 20 percent of incomes in the state while billions less are accruing to the bottom 80 percent.
On top of that, the Walker legislative juggernaut slashed the state’s longtime earned income tax credit, which gave a break to those considered to be in poverty. According to one study, that resulted in a 23 percent tax credit drop for a single-parent family.
What’s more alarming is that this all bodes ill for — of all things — the future of the state’s economy and job growth. Even though Wisconsin has had a reputation for higher-than-average taxes, its quality of life, its education system, and its well-maintained parks and infrastructure attracted businesses and workers to the state.
Turns out many people are willing to pay a little bit more for quality.
Yet we may well be standing on the brink of a rush to the bottom, where workers earn less, spend less and their children learn less as middle-class families fall further behind. Yes, they may pay a little bit less in taxes, but so do the citizens in many other states where the wages are low, poverty is high and schools and infrastructure are in shambles.
Last I looked, this isn’t where a once-proud Wisconsin hoped to be.