WHAT LIES BENEATH: The Esenberg factor | Wis.Community

WHAT LIES BENEATH: The Esenberg factor

[img_assist|nid=115461|title=Esenberg|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=0|height=0]Milwaukee lawyer, law professor and conservative pundit Rick Esenberg apparently didn't get the memo from Politifact that Gov. Scott Walker raised taxes.

Esenberg is an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University who also writes regularly as a guest columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, home of Politifact.

In an extended interview today with WUWM-FM, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's public radio station, Esenberg repeated the frequent conservative canard that Walker this year balanced the state's two-year budget without raising taxes. Moreover, Esenberg said, Walker did it without cutting services.

Of course, neither is true. Not only did the Walker budget, as approved by the legislature, represent the biggest state budget in history, it did include tax increases. Not on corporations or the wealthy, two interests that obtained tax cuts, but on low and middle income Wisconsin residents. Here's the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politifact column, coincidentally also appearing today and weighing in once again on that subject:

In May 2011, we rated this [no tax increase claim] as a Promise Broken, based on Walker’s own 2011-2013 budget proposal, which raised two taxes.

The two revenue raisers aren’t as easily understood as, say, an across-the-board income tax increase. But the nonpartisan state Legislative Fiscal Bureau -- cited by both sides as the official scorekeeper on such things -- has been consistent in considering both steps taken by Walker as tax increases.

It's probably too kind to regard Esenberg as being unaware of this. More likely, he joins many other conservative pundits and politicians in simply ignoring inconvenient facts. If you say something often enough and with enough sincerity, people actually start believing it's true. Which is why, on the national level, Republicans no longer mention the Obama presidency without adding the adjective "failed."

Esenberg went on in his WUWM interview to trash public employee unions as a significant cost to state government that Walker has now essentially eliminated. Never mind that Walker himself admitted to a US House committee hearing that his union-busting law wouldn't really save the state any money.

Walker was correct in saying that. In part, here's why: State employees have seen their combined salaries and benefits nicked not by the five percent that pundits like Esenberg keep citing but by as much as 15 percent, and that after many of them already were working at total compensations levels below that of their private-sector counterparts. Many of them are retiring early or quitting to take similar jobs in the private sector that pay better. That means the state has been forced to entice new hires with extra "market money" and turn over more state work to pricey consultants.

As for Esenberg's claim that Walker balanced his budget without cutting services: Well, nearly every Republican and conservative except perhaps Esenberg must by now know otherwise, even if they won't admit it in public or in their campaign ads. You simply don't cut nearly $900 million in public school aids and pretend services won't immediately decline. As they already have.

The WUWM program also included Esenberg's off-the-wall observation that unions are nothing more than cartels. Now, my dictionary says a cartel is "an association of manufacturers or suppliers that maintains prices at a high level and restricts competition." How a public employee union or any labor union can be construed as a "cartel" would make an interesting legal white paper.

Esenberg claimed that unions (apparently this is somehow unfair) get to help select the political leaders with whom they will do business, but you could, in fact, also say that about other, more well-heeled special interests like corporations that do business with the state and which also spend money on political campaigns. But instead of de-corporatizing corporations, like they've de-unionized unions, conservatives have been busy defining corporations as virtual citizens, giving them sweeping free-speech rights and the effective power to outspend everyone else in matters political.

Esenberg's parting comment to WUWM interviewer Stephanie Lecci was that the state's political turmoil over the past year has been very disappointing. "I would have hoped that we would have been able to discuss [these issues] more civilly," Esenberg said.

Yeah, well, when the Republicans now running state government decided to limit those discussions to the greatest extent possible by racing through complex legislation and voting on bills at midnight with constitutionally questionable and very minimal prior notice, are we to expect that progressives and unions in particular are supposed to limit themselves to polite notes of disapproval?

American politics is replete with angry protests, up to and including the tea party sorties of recent years. Wisconsin Republicans have acted in a manner that simply begged a loud response. When that response wasn't possible within the GOP-controlled arena of the legislative chamber, then it spilled out into the streets. Which, if you truly believe in democracy, is actually a good thing.

Side note to WUWM's "Lake Effect" program: Your attempt today at political balance was about as convincing as the Sunday TV network pundit shows that feature the occasional liberal or moderate Democrat to singlehandedly "balance" entire fleets of Republican legislators and conservative gas bags. WUWM's look at Wisconsin politics in 2011 consisted of a panel of mostly white male journalists, including two business magazine editors and a member of the conservative editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, plus Esenberg. These voices were "balanced" by the female editor of a Milwaukee African American weekly and John Gurda, a Milwaukee historian who has on occasion uttered an opinion or two but who mostly just observes with calm what has gone before. Both were articulate, but outgunned.

[One of the journalists, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's editorial page editor David Haynes, pulled an Esenberg and likewise claimed that Walker didn't raise taxes -- belying his own newspaper's coverage, which as we noted appeared the same day as the broadcast of the WUWM panel discussion.]

The radio station's "Lake Effect" program described Esenberg as a conservative political blogger who has long tracked conservative politics in the state. The show then invited him to analyze both conservative and liberal politics, without serious redress. Esenberg bent over backwards to sound middle of the road and took pains to identify himself as a conservative, but that's not good enough. When, one has to ask, will the same station if not program devote another 16 minutes of air time to an interview with a representative from the Occupy Wisconsin movement, or from the current Walker recall campaign, or even just a more liberal colleague of Esenberg at Marquette? We'll be listening.


December 12, 2011 - 4:22pm