March 7, 2011

The Budget Burden

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This past Sunday, a ten-city bus tour organized in support of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker concluded in Madison — ground zero for the ongoing protests against his budget proposal. The stop was marked by a series of speeches, the last of which was given by a man named Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher.Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, his nickname should ring a bill. He’s “Joe the Plumber,” so dubbed after his widely covered encounter with then-Senator Obama on the campaign trail in 2008. Wurzelbacher found himself in the national spotlight after Obama answered his question about tax policy with the phrase: “spread the wealth around.” As it turns out, Wurzelbacher wasn’t a huge fan of sharing the wealth — nor was the Republican party.Joe the Plumber, Scott Walker and their Republican cohorts seem to take umbrage at the idea of sharing the wealth. Curiously, though, they have no problem whatsoever with “sharing the burden,” which is precisely how the assault against public-sector workers in Wisconsin has been articulated. And this rhetoric is hardly unique to the debate in Wisconsin. In budget battles around the country, and even at the federal level, the attack on public workers has been framed in the same fashion: The economy is hurting, private sector workers are hurting, but those fat cat public sector workers are sure living large with their gigantic pensions!Forgive me, but I’m going to have to be a bit skeptical about these calls to “share the burden.” Implicit in that statement is the notion that, well, the burden is being shared. But when one considers how the “difficult choices” of balancing the budget have been made largely on the backs of public sector workers, as well as the economically disadvantaged, such rhetorical tactics stand out as disingenuous, to say the least.Consider this: Wisconsin faces an estimated $3.6 billion budget shortfall for the next two fiscal years. The deficits have been projected for some time, yet Governor Walker recently approved $117 million in tax cuts, and is now asking for another $82 million in tax cuts as part of the proposed budget. These numbers are small in light of the projected budget gaps, to be sure, but are reflective of a highly problematic paradigm of deficit reduction. Instead of attempting to balance the budget through a combination of reasonable tax increases and spending cuts, Walker wants additional tax cuts, including a decrease in the capital gains tax. Such policies not only dig a deeper hole in the government budget, but only serve to benefit a select few in Wisconsin. Nor do these tax cuts exist in a vacuum. Accounting for the additional $200 million in lost government revenue will almost assuredly accomplished at the expense of public sector workers and the economically disadvantaged, both of whom will be faced with additional salary and program cuts, respectively. Sharing the burden? I think not.Governor Walker can’t even consistently claim to support lower taxes. His proposed budget would eliminate $16 million in tax credits for low-income individuals and families, amounting to more than a 10 percent decrease in Wisconsin’s contributions to the Earned Income Tax Credit. This proposal is particularly pernicious, as money rebated to low-income individuals is far more likely to be recirculated into the economy than money rebated to the wealthy.And let’s not forget that one of the central — and most hotly contested — components of Walker’s budget proposal is the elimination of most collective bargaining rights for state employees, a move that has little if anything to do with deficit reduction. Walker claims that eliminating collective bargaining rights for everything but wages would streamline the budget process in the future (not surprisingly, most arguments are easier to settle when you gag your opponent). If the maelstrom in Wisconsin hasn’t clearly indicated the naivety of that assumption, remember that public sector unions had already agreed to more moderate pay cuts at the outset of the budget process. Walker’s decision to be a political opportunist and strong-arm the unions was a poor one, and has rightfully earned him the ire of most Americans.  Forty-five states face serious budget shortfalls in the coming year; solving them will undoubtedly require tough choices, including salary and pension cuts for public employees. Nonetheless, the policies enacted to balance the budget should be comprehensive and equitable, not concentrated in such that they meet targets by exclusively benefiting some at the expense of others. I agree; we do have to share the burden. Walker’s proposal, however, isn’t sharing the burden: it’s passing the bill.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter