By Aaron M. Rodriguez
Over the past few months, the spectacle that surrounds Walker’s stimulus position has become garbled and obfuscated thanks in large part to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As reported by MJS, it would appear that Walker was initially obstinate about accepting federal handouts, but later back-pedaled when politicians and business leaders began to castigate him publicly. This, however, was not the case. Walker’s position was simple: he would not pursue federal handouts, but would accept aid if it didn't cost the county additional expenditures and continuing commitments. In other words, the condition of acceptance is “no new spending.” Therefore, there was no back pedaling, just poor journalism by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
On January 6th of this year, Steve Schultze headlined an article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called “Walker Says No Thanks to Federal Stimulus Dollars. ” The headline was provocative, but inaccurate. Walker never said "no thanks" to stimulus funding. Instead, he said he would not actively pursue “new” projects. Schultze’s article unfairly characterized Walker as a one-trick pony, saying “the only federal economic stimuli that Walker endorses are tax cuts.” But Schultze admitted that Walker “does not categorically reject the idea of federal money going for local infrastructure projects”. These two statements are contradictory. If Walker accepts federal aid for county projects, then tax cuts aren’t the only stimuli that Walker accepts. This concept was not explored in any of Schultze's articles.
The fact that Walker does not categorically reject federal funding demonstrates one significant finding - there are certain sufficient conditions that make accepting federal aid appropriate. For example, Walker has already sought out $40 million in federal aid back in December of 2008. In early March, Walker stated that he would accept stimulus funds for the busing system because the federal handout required no local matching and did not require new unplanned operations. In other words, Milwaukee county did not have to engage in new spending.
On January 7th, the day after Schultze published his first piece, he wrote a sequel in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled “Walker’s Stance against Economic Stimulus for County Questioned”. Schultze said that Walker “hedged a bit whether he would accept any federal assistance” because he stated he would consider federal aid on a “case by case basis.”
How is Walker hedging? The only way Walker could be hedging is if he “categorically” refused stimulus money, which Schultze already admitted that Walker did not do. There is an easy way to understand this. Walker said he would consider stimulus funds on a case by case basis because there are conditions upon which he, as a fiscal conservative, will accept handouts. In Schultze’s first article, Walker alluded to such conditions saying he will not ask for “new” projects. This should have tipped Schultze off. However, Schultze continued on with a handful of successive articles reprinting the same falsehood that Walker rejected stimulus funds. In fact, Schultze got good mileage from Walker's stance; he followed up with at least a dozen articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel related to the potential stimulus infusion - that is until Doyle decided to assume control of the county's public assistance programs, then Schultze had a litany of other headliners to promulgate.
In Walker's editorial for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he laid out three conditions sufficient for accepting stimulus money.
1. There is to be no requirement of a local match.
2. There is to be no long term commitments by the federal government.
3. There is to be no continuing operational costs or maintenance expenses.
It is unfortunate that Walker was compelled to write an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in order to resolve complications from Steve Schultze’s hatchet job. Instead of the title “Walker says no thanks to federal stimulus dollars”, Schultze should have named his first piece “Walker says no thanks to new projects that require local matches or long term commitments.” But hell, that wouldn’t have made an interesting story line, so Mr. Schultze tweaked the title of his article, built a straw man falsifying Walker’s position, and created an unnecessary spectacle over Walker’s fiscal conservatism using the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as an accomplice.
Of course, the issue isn’t over. There are still some concerns from the left about Walker not rushing to the federal trough like Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett. Why did Walker refuse to pursue stimulus money? First, Walker has expressed some concerns over the concept of “free money”. If there is anything that the bank bailouts have taught us, it’s that when the federal government does us a favor, expect a payout. Banks like TCF Financial Corporation, Iberia Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo who have all received bailout funds are currently trying to return the money because the government has been implementing new conditions capriciously, disrupting cash flow, and putting them at greater risk of “eroding their positions.” For reasons like this, our own local Johnson Bank in Racine has said thanks but no thanks to stimulus aid.
With federal money comes an invisible contract with expectations of reciprocity. Walker’s concern is therefore valid. Walker has, however, shown a history of accepting funds if no strings are attached. In fact, Walker was the only politician that pushed for using federal stimulus dollars to provide tax relief for low income families - an idea that was greatly unreported in the local news (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal). Not only would a suspension of the sales tax require no local match, ongoing commitment, and no continuing operational costs, but it would have provided relief to families who are most affected by the current recession. The poverty rate of Hispanics in Milwaukee County is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-29%. Couple this with the fact that Hispanic households are the largest of all Wisconsin groups, and you have an especially difficult burden for Hispanic families as they have more mouths to feed, more bodies to clothe, and more school supplies to purchase. A suspension of the sales tax, for instance, would have provided more relief to the Hispanic community than any other minority group in Milwaukee County. Doyle, however, refused to consider the notion.
When it came to accepting stimulus funds, Scott Walker did not back pedal, did not hedge, and did not flip-flop. The core of Walker’s conservatism requires that he keep a keen eye on spending because ultimately, he is the taxpayer’s advocate. His obligation to the taxpayer does not prohibit accepting federal money if no new spending is mandated. If Schultze had understood this from the onset, Walker would not have been pigeonholed into such a fixed and restricted position. Journalist Steve Schultze dropped the ball by reporting his own rendition of Walker’s fiscal conservatism instead of listening to Walker’s narrative. And it's unfortunate that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has journalists that would rather create a story than to report one.