While Wisconsin protest coverage has focused on GOP efforts to limit public sector collective bargaining, less attention has been given to the Republican attack on the poor and people of color. On Saturday, activists gathered at the Exposing Colorlines event at the capitol to focus on the under-reported aspects of Walker's budget and proposed GOP legislation.
The numbers at Saturday's protest were down from previous weeks, but the energy, creativity, and diversity reached new heights, especially with increased involvement of young people performing music and spoken word. The vitality of the event was both a function of creative energy and of participants drawing attention to the little-discussed ways legislation will impact people of color. For example:
- Walker's proposed budget repair bill restricts medical assistance eligibility, leaving 70,000 poor, disproportionately of-color people without medical coverage. The bill also gives the Secretary of the Department of Health Services (DHS) unprecedented authority to drastically limit or even eliminate Medicaid, a step the current Secretary has advocated.
- For legal immigrants, the budget will limit eligibility for medical assistance and eliminate foodshare eligibility. This will punish people who have done everything "correctly," are in the country legally, work and pay taxes, and who may be on the long path to citizenship. Federal agencies govern the slow-going, multi-year citizenship process, and this state law is punishing the people caught in that bureaucratic framework.
- The budget eliminates in-state tuition for undocumented students who are admitted to college, more than doubling university tuition from $9,000/year to around $23,000/year, and increasing tuition 10 times at a technical college, from $150/credit to $1,500/credit. This would put college out of reach for most students.
- Walker would limit the quality of K-12 public education by cutting almost $900 million from schools (not to mention busting the teacher's unions), while at the same time prohibiting local districts from raising funds through increased property taxes. His budget reinforces existing inequalities by expanding the private school voucher program: private schools can pick-and-choose their students, often selecting those students who already come from an advantaged background, and leaving the rest to suffer in underfunded public schools. What's more, Walker's budget lifts income eligibility caps for vouchers, allowing rich families to save money on high-end private school tuition they can otherwise afford. School districts are also saying it will be more difficult to provide the school meal programs that have a demonstrable effect on learning for low-income students.
- The budget also eliminates funding for a program that provided assistance for civil legal services to those in need, a program favored by the State Bar.
- In addition to the budget bill, Wisconsin Rep. Don Pridemore (R-99th Dist.) is circulating an anti-immigrant bill modeled after Arizona's SB1070 that requires an inquiry into legal status if an officer has "reasonable suspicion" of non-citizenship; if a person is not carrying their documents, they are thrown in jail. Pridemore claims that the bill prohibits racial profiling, as it only permits inquiries after arrest, but police can always find a reason for arrest if the goal is a shakedown for documents. Most people participate in "arrestable activity" on a daily basis (not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, driving just over 65 MPH on the highway, driving with a broken taillight), but manage to escape police scrutiny. Under the proposed law, a brown-skinned person doing any of these things would be subjected to harassing inquiries into legal status and possibly thrown into jail if they happened to leave the house without an ID.
- Walker's budget will perpetuate Wisconsin's atrocious record of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, where African-American men are only 6% of the overall population but 48% of the prison population. Walker eliminates funding for the first program to track and remedy this racial injustice, an effort aimed at racial profiling that only took effect in January, and was the culmination of efforts started in 1999 by Wisconsin's last Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson.
- The budget will lengthen incarceration for Wisconsin's disproportionately of-color prison population by restoring the discredited Truth in Sentencing program, eliminating the "earned release" and "positive adjustment" programs designed to reward inmates for good behavior or participating in rehabilitative programs. This will also have a major fiscal impact, with each detained person costing the state $32,000 each year.
As Walker and the Wisconsin GOP make an equal-opportunity attack on Wisconsin's poor, middle class, and people of color, here's hoping all Wisconsinites grow more united in opposition.