A 1992 Wisconsin law limits the revenue a school district can raise through property taxes. When operating costs exceed that limit, districts have to ask voters to make up the difference. The idea behind the law was to control skyrocketing teacher salaries and benefits by holding annual increases to 3.8 percent per year. The state would also kick in money to hold down property taxes. The unintended consequence of this scheme was rising salaries for other district employees (janitors, administrators, cooks, bus drivers), while the revenue caps never grew with the rate of inflation. At the same time, state money is allocated based on enrollment rather than need, so poorer rural and inner-city school districts that are declining in student population have lost out again.
This has meant endless referenda over the past decade. Durand, the school district I live in, had one last spring.
These referenda have become especially divisive; both sides are essentially right. The schools need money just to keep operating at current levels, especially in the wake of higher fuel, energy, and healthcare costs. Yet the taxpayers simply do not have the incomes necessary to meet such increasing costs, especially in bad economic times. In a letter to the editor in the Durand Courier-Wedge, a gentleman asked, in all sincerity, why the school district wasn’t tightening its belt by eliminating field trips, like the one the band was planning to take, or activities such as forensics, instead of asking for more money. As you might expect, irate band members and their parents quickly responded, reminding readers that the band was raising its own money to pay for the trip, and forensics-team members and others who engage in extracurricular activities added that, to participate in these programs, they pay fees. Despite the preponderance of letters in favor of the referendum, the measure still lost, the district faces a three-million-dollar shortfall, and a reform slate of candidates, dedicated to open government and cutting spending, was elected to the school board.
Across the state, where similar struggles have occurred, the stalemate has stopped the progress conservatives made in Wisconsin in recent years and now threatens to reverse it entirely. Much has to be worked out philosophically and politically before conservatives can find their way again.
People complain about “government” far too carelessly. Which government upsets them? The federal government? State government? Local government? They never really say. This confusion has finally caught up to conservatives who run for office and govern at the state and local level. A conservative can complain about big government at the federal level, waving around the Constitution and saying that the Founding Fathers never meant for Washington to be as big as it is now. Such a candidate can always argue for devolving “more power to state and local governments,” but does he really mean it? Without clear principles for governing, conservatives at the state and local level usually do one of two things: Take a libertarian “all government at any level is bad” approach, which usually means slashing taxes to nothing and privatizing all government services; or pay lip service to this approach while taking conservative social positions on issues such as abortion, gun control, homosexual marriage, and so forth to prove themselves to local activists.
Local governments and school districts derive their operating budgets from property taxes, a system that often penalizes those who cannot afford to pay, especially when home values shoot up faster than incomes. Residents are squeezed even further because Wisconsin truly is a middling state. Manufacturing and agriculture still play major roles in the state’s economy. The more lucrative information and high-tech sectors barely exist here. Very few super-rich people live in Wisconsin, nor are there a lot of wealthy suburbs that can be tapped for money. Some school districts and governments do survive on monies collected from lake homes and woodland cottages, but, for the most part, they are trying to squeeze blood from a turnip, especially with an aging population living on fixed incomes.
In these circumstances, it is easy to whip up antitax fervor, and conservatives and their libertarian allies have done this on many occasions in order to win elections on the state and local level. The problem comes after taking office. If you are single-mindedly committed to cutting taxes, where do you get the money to run the government services that both the feds and the state expect you to provide?
Conservative Republicans in the most populated areas of the state, especially in the eastern “Golden Triangle” sector of Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee, talk of privatizing services in order to break the power of public-sector unions that back the Democrats. (This is what Milwaukee county executive and future GOP candidate for governor Scott Walker is doing. Most government employees in Wisconsin, no matter how big the municipality, are unionized.) But such solutions do not sell in the state’s more rural western and central parts, including Durand. Because of the loss of farms and factory jobs, government is often the largest employer in these communities, and public-sector jobs are the only decent middle-class jobs available.
These realities have had a profound effect on the state’s political scene since former Gov. Tommy Thompson left to serve in President Bush’s Cabinet after nearly 16 years in office. Thompson was a social conservative, but he was also a Main Street rural Republican. He cut taxes to help his business allies, but he also used state monies to buy political support, increasing state aid to local governments and devising a plan to have the state pay for one third of all building costs for schools. This set off an explosion of school construction and renovation across the state in the 1990’s that kept local economies humming (very Keynesian). He also replaced the state’s once-generous welfare system with workfare, which gave him a reputation for being a reformer and made him part of a class of Republican governors elected in the late 1980’s and early 90’s that tried to create a conservative approach to governing. That ultimately led to Republican control and dominance at the state and local level for a decade and a half and even to George W. Bush’s election in 2000.
Then came the recession of 2000-02. Suddenly there was no more money coming in, and problems began to arise that left Thompson’s hapless lieutenant governor, Scott McCallum, holding the bag. He decided to close the deficit by cutting off state aid to local government and education and castigating local officials for being big spenders. Since many of these officials were traditional small-town Midwestern Republicans like Thompson, this tore the party apart, leading to McCallum’s fall and the ascension of the state’s Democrats under current Gov. Jim Doyle.
The divide in Wisconsin’s Republican Party, as in many states, is not between moderate and conservative, but between rural and suburban. The suburban Republican Party is increasingly the stomping ground for DINKs (Double Income, No Kids) who live in the suburbs around Milwaukee, the Fox Valley, and Waukesha County. They have no connections whatsoever to local schools or other community organizations. Their spokesmen are three Milwaukee-based radio talk-show hosts who call down fire from heaven on local governments and school districts every chance they get. Numerous scandals in Milwaukee-area municipalities over the past decade have been fodder for their shows. (Among these was a massive pension scandal involving Milwaukee County employees, which helped Walker get elected as county executive.) But ripping local governments in Milwaukee on the airwaves only makes the party more Milwaukee suburban-centric, which only makes it more unappealing statewide. Thus, a proposal known as TABOR (Tax Payer Bill of Rights), which set strict spending guidelines for local municipalities that receive state funds, failed because the rural Republican Party refused to support it. The idea that politicians in Madison were going to set budget guidelines for communities all across the state was about as far from traditional conservatism as one could get.
Where does this leave conservatives at the local level? Ron Paul said that Republicans at the federal level should do more to control spending rather than worry about tax rates; the opposite is true at the state and local level. If the federal budget were cut and the size of the federal government were reduced, states and localities would have to pick up much of the spending and regulatory slack. But how could they do this if professional conservatives are taking libertarian positions on taxes and privatization that would starve state and local governments and drive middle-class government employees (many of whom are socially conservative) right into the arms of the Democrats?
Sean Scallon is a freelance writer and journalist living in Arkansaw, Wisconsin.
This article first appeared in the Correspondence section of the November 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.