Business vs. education becoming political question

With recall campaigns against six Republicans about to kick off in earnest, voters could be forgiven for thinking the main event actually was a boxing match instead of an election.

With recall campaigns against six Republicans about to kick off in earnest, voters could be forgiven for thinking the main event actually was a boxing match instead of an election.

The combatants -- or at least the interests the politicians claim to be fighting for -- are often portrayed like this:

In the corner to the left, supported by Democrats, are the teachers and children struggling to preserve funding for education. In the corner to the right, backed by Republicans, are business owners struggling to free themselves from the taxes and regulations imposed by big government so they can start creating jobs.

Yes, voters can expect to hear a lot of talk this spring from Democrats about how Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP legislative allies slashed education funding by more than $1.1 billion in the biennial budget so they could give tax breaks to wealthy corporations.

Republicans, in turn, are likely to argue those tax incentives are intended to improve Wisconsin's business climate and allow private companies to create much-needed jobs. The education cuts were necessary, they will maintain, to eliminate a $3.6 billion budget deficit.


The fight, almost surely carried out largely through a barrage of negative TV ads, will get ugly.

While there is only so much money to go around, both sides insist it doesn't have to be a case of eeny, meeny, miny, moe -- and choosing between business and education.

"We don't accept the false either-or choice," Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said. "The governor's reforms allowed the business climate to improve while giving school districts the tools to manage their budgets."

Those tools, of course, were controversial -- increasing pension and health insurance contributions for the state's public sector workers and ending their ability to collectively bargain in contracts -- prompting opponents to argue that public workers were being forced to pay for the education cuts out of their own pockets.

One of the Democrats running in a primary for the chance to challenge Walker in a recall election, tentatively scheduled June 5, agreed budget decisions don't have to come down to business vs. education, but argued the governor seemed to do that by targeting schools for cuts and teachers for concessions.

"To me it's a question of priorities," said state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma. "The governor has decided it's more important to give tax breaks to his friends than to fund public education -- at every level."

By contrast, Vinehout last year proposed her own alternative budget that she said showed the state could have preserved much of the funding for K-12 public education and higher education in part by not spending money to start the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and by eliminating tax cuts for corporations and the state's wealthiest residents.

"The governor was making choices," she said. "There are definitely other choices that could have been made and would have been made if I had been in charge of the budget."


Tax breaks for manufacturers also have the effect of picking winners and losers among business sectors, a risky practice when government officials don't know what the future economy will look like, Vinehout said, speculating that Walker made that choice because Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the state's largest business lobby and a major contributor to GOP campaigns.

Werwie said the governor's goal is to improve the state's job climate by making the state more attractive to job creators.

"Gov. Walker is committed to advancing pro-growth policies that encourage private sector job expansion," Werwie said.

State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, who was part of the GOP majority that advanced Walker's agenda, said the weak economy hurt tax revenues and forced legislators to rethink business as usual.

"It's what comes first -- the chicken or the egg," Bernier said. "If we don't have private sector jobs, then we will not have enough money ever for public sector jobs and services. It's just not mathematically possible."

That's why Republicans pushed through a series of tax incentives last year intended to promote private sector job creation in the short term, thereby expanding revenues in the long term, she said.

Though education cuts were necessary at the same time -- as a result, she said, of the public sector not keeping pace with cutbacks the private sector already had absorbed -- Bernier is confident things will work out in the end in a way that will allow Wisconsin children to still get a good education.

"One thing about hard times is it makes you step back and think about how you can do things differently," she said. "We have to let the private sector grow and flourish and catch up, and then we need to grow together."


Vinehout pointed to the $72 million in cuts to the state's technical colleges as particularly troubling, considering that system's crucial role in preparing workers for existing jobs. That problem is magnified, she said, with emerging reports of a skills gap in which employers complain about the inability to find qualified workers for openings despite a persistently high level of unemployment.

Mike Conlin, president of Eau Claire-based Dynamic Displays and a former GOP Assembly candidate, said budget cuts, while painful at the time, aren't always a bad thing for businesses or public sector entities such as school districts and universities.

"Sometimes administrators find they can provide the same level of services for less money once they are forced to find a more efficient way of doing things," Conlin said.

Yet Ed Young, a retired UW-Eau Claire economics professor and former Eau Claire city councilman, said he was troubled that the Republicans in control of state government didn't seem to place much value on public education.

"I think we should try to change the emphasis in Madison, and instead of making public education be the first place to cut, they ought to make it the last place to cut," Young said, noting the importance of an educated workforce to the economy.

Werwie countered that Walker took a new approach after seeing that years of massive increases in education spending hadn't led to increases in student performance. Walker focused on improving the state's education system through reforms that allow staffing decisions to be based on merit and teachers to be paid based on performance, Werwie added.

Ron "Duff" Martin, president of the Eau Claire teachers union, said one of the most troubling things to many teachers was the feeling that they and their schools were being singled out for givebacks at the same time businesses were getting new tax breaks.

"We in the Eau Claire school district have constantly made cuts, and if we want to maintain the quality of education we have in Wisconsin, particularly in Eau Claire, that comes at a cost," Martin said. "We have to find the right balance."


While teachers were willing to absorb their share of pain by accepting concessions in the form of higher contributions toward their benefits, Martin said, many educators felt taking away collective bargaining went too far and beyond what Walker talked about during his 2010 campaign for office.

In this contentious debate, everyone surely must agree on one thing: Voters can expect to hear a lot more about the clash between these heavyweight interests -- education and business -- in the next three months.

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or .

(c)2012 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

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