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In 2017, actual work by elected officials to make the lives of those they serve easier and better, will be out the window. (PHOTO: WikiCommons)

In defense of governing

There's an old political cliché: Republicans campaign claiming government doesn't work and then prove it once elected. I'm pretty sure 2017 will see that cliché proven true over and over again, to the detriment of everyone.

Consider the biggest recent story regarding government in Wisconsin, which is that our roads and highways are badly underfunded. Things are so bad that people with real power to do something are talking about (shudder) tollways like (shudder) the ones in Illinois.

This is not because some supervillain has been romping around the state jack-hammering our roads to pieces or because we Badgers love Illinois' "open-road tolling" so much we just have to have some here, like Portillo's hot dogs.

No, it's because we're now in year six of full control of Wisconsin government by Republicans, and we're seeing just how much government – government under the GOP, at least – doesn't work.

Republicans, who controlled the legislature in 2005, repealed automatic gas-tax indexing in the budget that year, but then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, vetoed the provision. His veto was overridden. Doyle tried to bring back automatic indexing in the next budget, but failed. Republicans cheered.

The automatic indexing allowed gas-tax collections, which largely funded road-building and maintenance in the state, to rise with inflation without a debate and re-vote every year. In the decade since, obviously, there has been inflation – more than 20 percent, according to federal data – meaning Wisconsin's roads are funded at less than 80 percent of where they could, and perhaps should, be. Well, maybe; cars today do in fact get better gas mileage than a decade ago, so an indexed gas tax alone wouldn't solve everything.

You might write off this road problem as merely a side-effect of a central Republican philosophy, which is that government should spend less because taxpayers use money more efficiently than governments and in ways that better stimulate the economy. Republicans have a deep and abiding faith in the power of the tax cut to solve every problem.

Except what we're talking about here – doing some back-of-the-envelope math about where Wisconsin's gas tax would be right now if it were still indexed to inflation – is about $47 of savings per Wisconsin driver for all of 2016.

That's right: We're talking about instituting toll roads now in Wisconsin because Republicans have given the average driver barely enough to take the family out for one dinner per year at Applebee's.

This does not indicate a failure of the economy, which has recovered from the Great Recession. This does not indicate the success of Wisconsin's Republicans in reducing the state's spending or borrowing, as each biennial budget under Walker has been the largest ever, and the state still maintains a massive deficit under the "generally accepted accounting principles" state Republicans insist local units of government must use in their own budgets.

It indicates, rather, that Republicans' priority when governing is, well, not governing. Wisconsin state spending on things that make regular people's lives better and easier – not just roads, but also schools and health care and public transit and retirement security and regulation of bad actors who create danger in the community – has fallen, while spending that favors wealthy donors has increased.

The "job creators," who are supposedly the ones doing all the hard work of growing the economy, get fat government handouts from Wisconsin Republicans while the rest of us get school referenda and toll roads.

Oh, and there's this thing with the "kicking ass" coins.

To be fair, the cost of Attorney General Brad Schimmel's self-serving coins would have only paid for maybe four feet of interstate repair. Still, it goes on the list of things the Wisconsin GOP has been doing to prove conclusively that government doesn't work, up to and including making sure the people in government themselves aren't working. This is not how you govern; this is not how you make sure your constituents lead happy and productive lives.

And this is not merely a Wisconsin problem. I mean, consider what happened in North Carolina in the weeks since a Democrat defeated an incumbent Republican governor. Or how Kansas, which Republican Governor Sam Brownback declared to be a laboratory experiment to prove how great tax cuts really are, has fallen to pieces. In those states, and among Republican leaders everywhere, taking care of the people who live and work in their districts or states is at best secondary to rigid ideology or holding onto power. In some cases, it seems like governing is dead last as a priority.

We have to talk about the federal government, too. I made a promise last month that I would not talk about one particular Republican, but even leaving him aside, the way the newly emboldened Republican Congress is acting shows that, they too, don't much care for the work of governing.

You can see that most clearly in their major push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, something opposed by a large plurality of Americans and that would adversely affect more than 20 million Americans. Indeed, almost every single piece of that bill is massively popular with voters, even Republican voters.

But repealing the ACA – or, I guess, "Obamacare" – benefits two important Republican constituencies: the rich and super-rich. It would also blow a hole in the budget, a hole that Republicans don't want people to even know about. This does not help normal people.

The new Congress also revealed its true priorities in other ways, including a plan, aborted under intense public pressure, to cripple ethical oversight of Congress and by passing a rule, still in place, that would allow Congress to target individual federal employees if they do something Republicans don't like, such as report scientific facts about climate change.

One more example, this time from the laughably named "House Freedom Caucus," tea-partiers whose antipathy to deficits is their defining characteristic. That sentiment underlay years of relentless opposition to anything President Obama proposed that might help normal people, like supplemental housing assistance, disaster relief aid or expanded food stamps. It seems now that President Obama is in his last days in office, that opposition to deficits has vanished; deficits only matter when Democrats are in charge, apparently.

So that's my big prediction here at the start of 2017. Governance, actual work by elected officials to make the lives of those they serve easier and better, will be out the window. Instead, look for our new Republican overlords to concentrate and consolidate their own power, rack up major deficits, plunge millions of American families into dire financial straits and even do stupid things like make Wisconsin's highways into toll roads.


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