First outsourcing, then downsizing -- The Incredible Shrinking State of Wisconsin | WisCommunity

First outsourcing, then downsizing -- The Incredible Shrinking State of Wisconsin

Given the Wild Bunch that's now running Wisconsin state government, it's easy to fall into a dark, fearful and conspiratorial mood that their actions are spreading among us. So I was momentarily surprised to see what seemed like a gloating headline today on the intro page at the state's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection web site. It reads:

Well! It was already clear that Team Walker and the repo-Ledge of GOP lawmakers are intent on further reducing the size of state government and sending most of those savings to their rich, fat-cat buddies in the form of tax cuts, as they consistently have in the past -- a sly form of upwards wealth redistribution. But this headline seemed to demonstrate just how openly crass our klepto-government was becoming.

But upon closer examination: Not so fast. The full headline was this: 

Referendum open to downsize Wisconsin cherry board

Clicking on that headline takes you to a DATCP news releasethat describes how: 

Wisconsin tart cherry growers have until January 24, 2015 to vote whether to decrease the size of their industry’s marketing order board.

Cherry growers eligible to vote will get ballots from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in the mail on or after December 29. Voters will determine by referendum whether to reduce the size of the Wisconsin Cherry Board from seven members to five.

The proposed rule also would eliminate voting districts for the cherry board. On the current seven-member board structure, three members represent each of the state’s two cherry-growing districts. The seventh board member represents the industry at-large. The proposed rule would change the structure to five members elected at-large.

So, never mind. Or maybe go ahead and keep on minding. We over here in the progressive community who worry that Walker Inc. will lay further waste to the state's tradition of effective, efficient, watchful, consumer-minded, caring goernment still have to worry. As for the cherry growers, hey, they're just considering whether to downsize the state board that represents them, right?

Then again:

Many state agencies and commissions and boards have seen neglect or outright downsizing, to the point where it's become a clear pattern. There's been a lot of this, especially in comparison to other states doing better economically, so you have to write off the idea it's all in the name of efficiency. And the nagging thought that Walker Inc. is busy re-stitching the functions of state government into a Frankenstein monster that serves the GOP is not really that unprecedented a thought, given that Walker made it clear years ago he's one of those Grover Norquist, "shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub" types.

Mind you, some shrinking is a good thing. It's not as if Democratic governors (Pat Lucey in particular) have never mounted austerity budgets or tightened state government -- heck, early in his first term, Lucey abruptly turned the state's two public university systems into one.

But the scope  of downsizing isn't all we should consider. It's also the purpose behind those moves. If it's to save money, it's possible in certain cases that downsizing could be a good thing, if it doesn't undermine the purpose of the function. But you have to think twice when the downsizing translates to fewer citizens sit on state boards, or when fewer people are deemed qualified by state law to serve as judges (because they're suddenly too old at 75, when other professionals like symphony conductors are often just beginning to really spread their winds).

And you have to think twice when the governor is again planning to reshape the government's agency structure by merging or doing away with agencies entirely -- just as he ditched the Commerce Department for the increasingly dysfunctional "Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation," which he chairs as a business entity. Just as when his appointees to run the Department of Natural Resources promptly transformed that watchdog agency into the Department of Re-Sourcing Natural Resources to Developers.

It's never a good thing if the unstated purpose of downsizing or agency realignment is to derail state programs in order to make that case that government is somehow inherently screwed up. As the repo-Ledge and Walker appear ready to do in the case of the Government Accountability Board, making it a partisan agency that's accountable only to the people in power. And Team Walker is working hard to ensure that will always be the GOP. 

Or as when Team Walker lollygagged around while a huge percentage of state citizens trying to phone in about their unemployment benefits for years experienced dropped calls. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in mid-December noted that more than 3 million phone calls for help have been dropped by the state call center since 2011, "including the majority of their attempts to reach call centers last year." As the Wisconsin Radio Network reported earlier this month about unemployment benefit distributions:

The Department of Workforce Development (DWD) has identified 681,400 overpayments over the past three years, totaling $167.9 million. That’s the result of individuals intentionally (9.5 percent) and unintentionally (84.7 percent) providing inaccurate information.

Now what caused that? A small bit of it seems to have been intentional fraud. A lot of it seems to have been unintentional. Maybe, if the state's call center had been properly sized, a lot of those unintentional mistakes wouldn't have occurred, and only did occur because beneficiaries had to figure it all out on their own. In other words, the barn door to state government services was locked tight, while the barn door to the state treasury was left wide open. Grandpa had a term for this: Penny-wise and pound-foolish. The scary thing, though, is that there may have been method to Team Walker's madness. Now they have a newly manufactured excuse with which to take a further knife to unemployment benefits, which they don't really believe in at all.

And what happened when Walker "reformed" BadgerCare in this state? Some new impoverished citizens were added to the rolls, a good thing. But 87,000 low-income adults were dropped, and actuarial analysis suggested that 671 more state deaths would occur as a result, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in extra expense to state taxpayers because Walker refused to take federal aid. Why? He said he didn't trust that the aid would actually be there. But that didn't stop the state from later seeking related federal aid (also coming from the dreaded "Obamacare" law) to set up a pilot health care program. The situational ethics here are manifest. Make a principled stand that looks "bold," but take the very same kind of money under the table when no one's looking.

The major ethic of this Republican-controlled government is to make it much harder in general for citizens to get a helping hand up when they're down and out, but to make it much easier to get handouts if you're on top of the heap, income-wise. Corporate welfare yes, individual help, not really. The concomitant ethic is to turn the levers of state government into a more crude and heavy bludgeon, used much more frequently to set out local mandates while taking away more funds to help pay for them.

An increasing number of Wisconsin towns whose populations number in the low thousands have in recent years developed local, typically government-subsidized mass transit systems, some of which serve entire counties or multiiple counties. But when underserved Milwaukee (with a metro population of 1.6 million) wants to reverse years of declining support for mass transit, all it gets is heated rhetoric from Madison. No additional transit bus aids! No rail! That stuff is expensive! Yet the City of Milwaukee continues to send more tax dollars to the rest of the state than it takes in locally. What's yours is theirs, what's theirs is theirs.

Downsizing for thee, upsizing for they and their pals.


December 26, 2014 - 10:35am