A False State of Austerity

By Dayna Long

Over the last ten years, Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature have severely undermined local control including barring state regional transit authorities and instituting levy-limits, leaving local governments with few options for raising funds. In response, county and city governments have adapted their budgets to fit these state-imposed constraints, meting out austerity measures on behalf of the Republican Party like a sharp stick in the eye to their constituents. Having accepted the sort-of true premise that our leaders have no choice, and with few prospects for resistance, we, their constituents, have adapted, too. We have accepted austerity and tough decisions, even in cities like Madison and Milwaukee, where the untapped wealth on display makes the new measures and the shrunken budgets all the more obscene. 

In this new decade, socialists in Wisconsin should lead the charge for another way. 

The Dynamic at Play

In a recent example of the above dynamic, the Madison Common Council instituted a $40 “wheel tax” to raise funds for improvements to the city’s Metro Transit system, increasing the cost of vehicle registration for Madison residents to a steep $153. Unsurprisingly, many people were unhappy about the change. While anyone who said that the city doesn’t need to spend more money on Metro Transit is sorely mistaken, people aren’t wrong to be critical of what is essentially a regressive tax — every resident is charged $40, regardless of income. The wheel tax, like any flat tax, will be disproportionately hard on low-income residents, often living in far-flung neighborhoods where it’s hardest to go without a car due to insufficient transit service and a lack of nearby jobs and grocery stores. 

A funding plan that requires everyone to contribute equally hides that we don’t all contribute equally to the need for public transit. For example, some employers require hundreds or even thousands of people to commute to and from their business five times a week to create wealth for them. Does it actually make sense for me to pay the same $40 wheel tax for transit as the millionaires and billionaires who own those businesses?

Alders expressed a lot of reluctance to go through with the wheel-tax. But at the end of the day Metro Transit badly needed the funding and the state had them in a bind. They didn’t want to reach into our pockets, but the Republicans have blocked their access to other coffers. On top of that, you don’t have to look far to see how things might have played out had the Common Council rejected the wheel tax. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele didn’t get his wheel tax past the Milwaukee County Board in 2018. Since then, the county has made cuts to bus routes. Bus drivers in local ATU 998 went without a contract for over a year as the county claimed that the union’s demands exceeded the county’s budget. They only came to an agreement this past November, hours before a transit strike was set to commence. 

There really are no good choices when you play the Republicans’ game. And to be fair to everyone, it can be hard to envision an alternative to playing. The labor movement is only beginning to recover from the impact of Act 10, and successful, sustained organizing has been sporadic at best since the Wisconsin Uprising. It can seem like there’s no way forward except to contort our values and goals to accommodate the Republican-imposed limitations. In fact, I will admit that I spent a whole week supporting the wheel tax, even writing a letter to the City Finance Committee urging them to adopt it. Transit in Madison is bad and needs to be better and yet there is no radical, grassroots movement in Madison calling for robust, fare-free transit. Transit advocates in Madison supported the wheel tax. Most of those who opposed the wheel tax don’t care about funding transit. I was (briefly) unable to see another way. 

At the same time, it’s too easy to say that city and county leaders’ hands are tied and that they’d find a different way if only they could. Democrats are often not sorry to have a Republican-provided excuse to avoid making their friends and collaborators in the business class ante up. Neoliberalism is entirely compatible with local governments that are hamstrung in their ability to levy taxes, that are forced to shrink services and cede responsibility to individuals and control to private interests. Reducing the role of government and shifting more and more of the burden of caring for people onto individuals and families has been a bipartisan project for decades.

And while greater funding for things like transit and housing are always a question mark, there seems to be no end to the amount of money cities will pour into policing. In the same budget that introduced the wheel tax, the city allocated funds to hire three more police officers in spite of a falling crime rate and the fact that Madison Police Department already has a higher than average officer to resident ratio for a city of Madison’s size. Even within the narrow confines set by the Republican party, city leaders get to make choices. In Madison, they choose to defund essential services to give more money to what is already the most expensive city agency

A Losing Strategy

It’s hard to say for certain how else the Common Council might have funded transit improvements in the confines of the existing city budget. That’s exactly the problem. Even Alders with the best politics and great intentions (there are several who come to mind) can’t win under the current conditions. Not only is the wheel tax itself a losing prospect, so are all strategies to fund services that accept this false state of austerity as an inevitable reality. 

For one thing, the funding required to tackle the serious crises facing our state — from its longstanding segregation and appalling racial disparities to the infrastructure improvements needed to tackle carbon emissions and survive extreme weather events — won’t be found in working people’s shrinking bank accounts. Worse still, regressive funding measures obscure class divisions, taking from individuals equally as if we all profit equally from public investment. Our job as socialists is to expose the class interests that govern our communities, not to confuse them with bad policies. 

Furthermore, when we treat Republican-imposed austerity as inevitable, we lower people’s expectations for the future at the very moment we should be raising prospects for the fights ahead. This might be a fine thing for Democrats who are not opposed to shrinking working people’s expectations about what the government should provide, and who have a long history of neutralizing movements. But for socialists, it is a terrible dead end. 

Another Way

Seattle socialist and city council member Kshama Sawant provides an excellent example of how socialists can relate to state-imposed funding restrictions. Washington is said to have the most regressive tax structure of any state in the country, creating inequality best characterized by a homelessness crisis in the same city where Amazon is headquartered. Instead of accommodating to these conditions, Sawant takes every opportunity to connect peoples’ hardship to the undertaxed opulence of the tech giants and other corporations. The connection is also reflected in the policies she’s fought for, including a $15/hr minimum wage and a per-employee head tax on big businesses to help ease the housing crisis. While state restrictions do limit what’s possible at the city level, whole movements have coalesced around the popular demands Sawant gives voice to, including unions. Her incredible electoral victory over an Amazon-financed candidate this past November speaks to the strength of the coalition amassed around her politics. It’s exciting to imagine what such a coalition might achieve next.  

We can also learn from the successful teachers’ strikes of the past two years. As many of them demonstrated, it is possible to force change past red state legislatures. But teachers didn’t win by following the rules or by limiting their demands to what was possible according to their state governments. In fact, bucking the austerity that was hurting them and their students required defying conventional wisdom about what was possible, even when it came from their own timid union leadership.

As socialists in Wisconsin, we have to be the first to insist that while there are still billionaires alive on earth (including right here in Dane County) it is wrong to ask working class people to pay a greater share, nor can we tolerate cuts to the services all of us rely on, be it bus routes or subsidized housing. Our job in this new decade is to share a vision of the future so inspiring that people are willing to fight to achieve it, which means thinking far beyond Republican-imposed levy limits and raising the prospects for the movements to defeat them.

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