Monday, November 15, 2010

Wisconin Gov.-Elect Walker has a deep-seated hatred for rail

Photo credit: dreamstime_11512691
Hatred of rail most logically explains Wisconsin Gov.-Elect Scott Walker’s torpedoing the planned high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison. His stated motive – to save Wisconsin taxpayers $7.5 million a year in operating costs – doesn’t compute. After all, the project should easily generate that money and more for the state coffers.

Before I had a chance to post this piece, an alternate explanation emerged: the gobs of money the road builders lavished on the Walker campaign. But the Milwaukee County executive’s phobia about rail goes way back, stunting public transit in Milwaukee for years. Now he has public transportation in a whole state to retard.

Consider these facts:

  • The Republican politician has pledged to attract 10,000 companies to Wisconsin in four years. Yet, almost the first thing he does as governor-elect is to practically shoo a company away, Milwaukee-based high-speed train maker Talgo, which Mayor Tom Barrett and outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle had convinced to open shop in the industrial city. The company has said that, because of Walker’s anti-rail policies, it may move to Illinois, into the open arms of Gov. Pat Quinn.
  • Walker has pledged to bring 250,000 jobs to the state in those four years. Yet, already he has done the opposite, idling dozens of workers who have started to construct the high speed rail line. In killing the project, he would put the kibosh on thousands of construction jobs altogether and lead to the layoffs of scores of engineers and others already hired for the project. Dozens of new jobs – to run the railroad and its stations – won’t be created. He would likely chase away the 125 jobs planned for Talgo. Hundreds of spinoff jobs – at the ice cream parlor that opens near a train station or at the electronics store that must hire due to increased business generated by train-related paychecks – won’t come to be.
  • Walker complains about the state’s fiscal crisis. Yet, he’s thumbing his nose at $810 million in free money – that is, money the state doesn’t have to raise. Sure, he’s asking the feds to redirect this stimulus money to Wisconsin roads, or, in the latest ploy, to existing rail. But that outcome is, as Doyle put it, “pure fiction.” Meanwhile, governors elsewhere, particularly in Illinois and New York, are salivating over these funds. What’s more, if Wisconsin drops the project, the law holds it would have to return millions already spent on it.
  • The thousands of jobs to be generated by the project – the Madison-based Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group puts the number of permanent jobs at 13,000 – should result in state tax payments that would easily cover the $7.5 million in yearly operating costs. But Wisconsin may only have to pay $750,000 – should federal aid cover 90% of the costs, as it already does with the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line.

In short, in killing the Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line, Walker is pursuing a course that would likely cost Wisconsin many times more money than the $7.5 million a year it might save. So the question becomes: Why is he pursuing this insane course? True, the money he’s getting from the road builders is likely a factor, even though the $810 million can’t be used for roads. But the most logical explanation, to borrow from Glenn Beck, is that Walker has a deep-seated hatred for rail.

Milwaukeeans are familiar with this hatred. One of his chief “accomplishments” as Milwaukee County executive was to keep light rail away – for reasons that likewise failed to withstand scrutiny. He called himself protecting the county bus system, from which light rail would drain resources. He depicted himself as champion of the poor (don’t laugh!), who ride the bus, whereas light rail draws the upwardly mobile, quiche-eating crowd.

Some protector he turned out to be. He has the bus system in a death spiral of rising fares, reduced service and falling ridership.

While Walker was saying “no” to light rail, Minneapolis was saying “yes.” And that enlightened city found that light rail 1) drew more riders than expected, 2) in contrast to busses, pulled people out of their cars and onto public transit, 3) increased bus ridership since passengers could use their light rail transfers for the bus and vice versa, 4) boosted business around light rail stops and 5) increased job opportunities for poor people.

Minneapolis could look amused at County Executive Walker’s irrational hatred of rail. But the Minnesota city must be alarmed at Gov. Walker’s hatred. The next leg of high speed rail to be constructed was supposed to connect Minneapolis to Madison and thus to Milwaukee and Chicago. But Walker’s quashing those plans.

The better workers, customers and business people can move around, the more vibrant the economy will be. Walker retarded that movement in Milwaukee County. Now, gads, he’s trying to do for the state what he did for the county.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Once again economy trumps everything

No, it wasn’t Obamacare. No, it wasn’t the deficit. No, it wasn’t the excessive partisanship in Congress. No, it wasn’t the bailout. No, it wasn’t even high taxes.

It remained the economy, Stupid.
Voters were lashing out in pain at the polls Tuesday, to the benefit of the out party, the Republicans.

The ejected Democrats fell victim to the Great Recession, which rolls on endlessly. They didn’t create the downturn. In so far as elected officials are to blame, Republicans deserve more of the rap because of their unswerving support for the fiscally reckless, oversight-eschewing policies of George Bush.

But the economy was too slow to recover after the Democrats took power, so they paid the price. Even exceptional lawmakers, like Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, went down.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold

Maybe President Obama should have heeded the advice of economist-columnist Paul Krugman and did a bigger, more aggressive stimulus package. Sure, the Tea Party types would have had even bigger conniption fits than they did. But the result could well have been a faster recovery and thus a happier electorate and continued Democratic control of the House. The stickler, of course, would have been getting a bigger package passed.

Republicans risk trouble if they act on the false belief it was their message that won the day. They claim the people don’t want what Republicans derisively call Obamacare. But try repealing it, and watch the howls of protest. Health care reform helps people much more than it hurts anybody.

Republicans may delude themselves into believing that the people want to renew Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. But those cuts failed to keep us out of the Great Recession and are likely to continue to flop at producing jobs, which are what the people really want.

Republicans may think they were elected to balance the budget by cutting spending. But such action could slow the economy and prolong the recovery and thus alienate the electorate. (See earlier post, "The deficit in Republican thinking.")

There is a silver lining for Democrats. According to the exit polls reported on TV, they overwhelmingly won the youth vote. Trouble is, young people didn’t vote in as big a number as they did two years ago – a failure that allowed the Republicans to romp. Still, the G.O.P. remains a dying party, with only enough strength now to score victories when young people stay home.

But those young people will mature and thus vote more often. At the same time the ranks of the elderly G.O.P. will shrink due to deaths. What’s more, two groups that have sought refuge in the Democratic Party – African Americans and Latinos – are expanding.

Yes, Tuesday was bad for Democrats. But they mustn’t take the loss personally. The electorate was in pain and had to lash out at somebody. What’s more, better days lie ahead for the Dems and, if they stay true to their principles, the country.