Mitt Romney LOVES Scott Walker…and he’s completely wrong about the Wisconsin Retirement System

Sez former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt “R-Money” Romney…

“Governor Walker is, in my opinion, an excellent governor, and I believe that he is right to stand up for the citizens of Wisconsin, and to insist that those people who are working in the public sector unions have rights to effect their wages, but that these benefits and retiree benefits have fallen out of line with the capacity of the state to pay them, and so I support the governor in his effort to reign in the excesses that have permeated the public sector union and government negotiations over the years,”

Putting aside the hilarity that is Mitt Romney “campaigning” in Wisconsin while actually being physically located in the state of Texas (Romney’s comments were made at a tele-town hall), he’s actually completely wrong about the ability of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) to keep up with benefits owed to participants.

The Wisconsin Retirement System is one of the most well-managed and well-funded public employee retirement systems in the country. According to this report, as of December 2009 the WRS held assets totaling $72.8 billion, and the State Investment Fund’s returns “consistently exceeded performance benchmarks.”

What’s more, according to Boston College’s public plans database (data from 2009), the Wisconsin Retirement System is one of only a few public employee pension funds in the country that is considered “fully funded,” with Kil Huh, director of research at the Pew Center on the States, commenting, “These [top] states have been exhibiting the financial discipline in order to pay those annual bills year over year.”

While I understand it’s en vogue for Republicans/conservatives to rail against the “excesses” of public employees benefits, their rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality, at least not here in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Retirement System is one of the most well-managed, well-funded public employee pension systems in the country, and I’d argue it’s a model for what other states can do right, as opposed to being something for conservatives to denigrate.

Wisconsin’s GOP extremism is just an illusion

Many people here in Wisconsin have been lamenting the loss of moderate Republican lawmakers. Politicians with radical viewpoints, like Glenn Grothman, appear to be the majority. Some have suggested that we’re just following a national trend, that the GOP as a whole has become more extreme, and that it’s only going to get worse. But I’m not so sure that’s true.  In fact, based upon evidence, I think it’s all an illusion. And that’s good news for Wisconsin.

Wisconsin lawmakers have made some pretty nutty statements recently, in my opinion. For example, Republican Senator Ron Johnson recently stated that women who can’t afford birth control should simply Google “what if I can’t afford birth control?” to find a solution, and bam, problem solved.

Wow.

But it’s not just Johnson’s comments that have people here fired up; some of the most egregious offenses of late come from Wisconsin women. At a gathering in downtown Waukesha a few weeks ago, area women could not comprehend how female GOP lawmakers could support legislation that is patently anti-women or understand why they don’t seem to care about women’s health.

For example, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, a cancer survivor herself, had congratulated Susan G. Komen when the foundation announced it would cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Did she not want other want women to have access to life-saving cancer screenings? Really?

Then there’s Alberta Darling, who drafted a motion to end our state’s support for Planned Parenthood clinics last year. She also voted to restrict eligibility for the family planning program, part of Badgercare, to exclude men from the program, among other things.

Do these women really think it’s smart to cut these services, which have been proven to prevent disease, save lives, and reduce costs? Do they really believe the things they say? Or are they faking it?

After all, Alberta Darling used to sit on the board of Planned Parenthood, she used to be pro-choice, she used to be concerned with women’s health, she used to be a moderate.

So what happened?

Looking at recent Wisconsin history, it appears that moderate GOP women  have been driven out of the legislature and replaced with white males who consistently vote against women’s rights. Here are four such examples:

Barbara Lorman, who was a State Senator from 1980-1994, lost in a Republican primary election to Scott Fitzgerald in 1994. 

Peggy Rosenzweig was a State Assemblywoman from 1982 to 1993 and a State Senator from 1993 to 2002.  She also lost in a Republican primary, to Tom Reynolds in 2002.

Mary Panzer served as a State Assemblywoman from 1980 to 1993, a State Senator from 1993 to 2004, and was, at one point, majority leader.  She lost in a republican primary to Glenn Grothman in 2004.

Carol Roessler  served in the State Assembly from 1982 to 1987, and was a State Senator from 1987 to 2008.  She didn’t lose in a primary, but resigned in 2008 after accepting a post from then Governor Jim Doyle. However, she was replaced by Republican Randy Hopper, who was part of the “backbone of Scott Walker’s extreme agenda” until his recall in 2011.

Four moderate GOP women, four departures from the legislature, four white male replacements who consistently vote(d) against women’s rights. And three of them were directly primaried by their own party.

This leads me to conclude that it’s possible that the Wisconsin GOP hasn’t really moved radically right, that those who are currently in power pushed all the moderates out, presenting the illusion that the party has moved to the far right.

So some legislators are, in fact, faking it.

Of course, some Republican lawmakers truly do believe the outlandish things they say. I’m guessing the Fitzgeralds are legit, for example. But I’ll bet behind the scenes most of our Republican politicians are less Glenn Grothman and more Dale Schultz.

It’s all about power, if seems, it’s all about who controls the GOP right now, and they all have to play along if they want to keep their jobs.

The good news is, if Wisconsinites can vote out those currently in power, if we can break up the FitzWalkerstan club currently in charge, then the moderate GOP politicians will come crawling out of the woodwork. Then, and only then, will we have the ability to end our state’s bitter divide and usher in an era of reasonableness.

Make it so.

Walker’s Enemies List

Back in 1971, confronted by mounting domestic opposition, the Nixon White House issued a call for enemies from the staff.  Then White House Counsel John Dean (who, in recent years has taken his own party to task in a series of scathing books and articles which lay the decay of American democracy squarely at the feet of the Republican Party) issued the following memo to senior White House staff:

The sole purpose of this memo was to have the senior White House staff provide the names of people in the press and in positions of influence who were likely to oppose a second Nixon term.  In Dean’s words

…how can we use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies?

The original list of 20 names was later expanded to include dozens of Americans in politics, entertainment, journalism, business and labor.  The entire Congressional Black Caucus made the list.

Now in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has his ultimate enemies list, all searchable and indexed.  It’s called Verify the Recall.  And he has a legion of Mechanical Turks to parse the data and identify useful enemies to target.  So far they’ve restricted their witch hunt to judges and journalists who, presumably in Walker’s Brave New State are not entitled to their own opinions.

Except, of course, that these are not enemies.  Walker didn’t create this list.  These are voters expressing their opinion.  If Wisconsin’s laws protected recall signers the same way they protect voters, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.  To me, signing a recall petition is no different from voting, whether or not it’s private.  It’s akin to a caucus vote.  A public expression of political will.  But Walker’s supporters, desperate to protect “their man in Madison” will use any underhanded stratagem to ensure Walker remains in power, even if it means corrupting the very heart of democracy.

Walker’s minions are using their enemies list just like Nixon used his list, to hound and persecute (and sometimes prosecute) their “enemies.”  Journalists and judges are the first target.  Who will be next?  Teachers?  Union leaders?  State employees?  Police?  Firefighters?  Bloggers?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Some questions about Sweet Water Organics

Sweet Water Organics – job creators?

In 2011, Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponic fish and vegetable farm located in Bay View, received a $250,000 forgivable loan from the City of Milwaukee. Under the terms of the loan, if Sweet Water Organics (SWO) employs 10 people by 2012, 21 by 2013, 35 by 2014, and 45 by 2015, the loan will be forgiven. If Sweet Water fails to meet those job creation goals, the loan must be repaid with 5-percent interest.

At the time the loan was being considered, Sweet Water’s president and cofounder Josh Fraundorf said, “Our goal is to continue to expand because we can’t produce enough,” Fraundorf said. “We get a premium for our produce. Our demand is such we need to expand our capacity.” At the time Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski (pictured, left) had high praise for Sweet Water’s loan, calling is support for the public loan a “slam dunk” case.

In a recent candidate Q & A with the Bay View Compass, Ald. Zielinski cited Sweet Water Organics as an example of his efforts to create jobs, saying, “Additionally, hundreds more jobs are being created with funding we secured for urban agriculture companies like Sweet Water Organics.”

However, as far as I can tell, Sweet Water Organics hasn’t created “hundreds” of jobs; in fact, Sweet Water Organics reports having “created or maintained” 12 jobs since receiving the loan from the City of Milwaukee, with 4 of those jobs being held by Sweet Water Organics staff members who were employed there prior to the grant and who were receiving much better pay. Two more of those twelve positions are occupied by Josh Fraundorf and Jim Godsil, the co-founders of Sweet Water Organics. For a time Fraundorf and Godsil had not been drawing pay from SWO, but it appears that for the purposes of “job creation,” both are now drawing paychecks from Sweet Water Organics.

Having reviewed Sweet Water Organics’ most recent quarterly wage report, there also appears to be a number of individuals listed as having received wages who are actually former employees of Sweet Water Organics who were owed back pay by SWO, as opposed to being “new” employees of SWO.

So here’s two questions I have: How many jobs has Sweet Water Organics actually created, and how many of those jobs are the type of jobs that are family-sustaining? It certainly seems to me that if Sweet Water Organics has created jobs, they’re minimum wage jobs that certainly aren’t the kinds of jobs that would be comparable to high-tech “Silicone Valley” jobs Ald. Zielinski mentioned in a recent mailer sent to voters.

Sweet Water Organics – when will it turn a profit?

One final question I’ve found myself wondering is when Sweet Water Organics – which is organized as a for-profit business – will actually start turning a profit. In may, 2010 SWO co-founder Josh Fraundorf told the Wall Street Journal he hoped to begin to show a profit by that fall (while employing “around 20 workers,” no less). However, in a December 30, 2011 article in the Bay View Compass, Fraundorf said he hoped to have data on April 1, 2012 that would show a profitable farm. Interestingly enough, while Fraundorf said he hoped to have data showing a profitable farm by April 1, 2012, in the same article from the Compass Todd Leech, Sweet Water vice-president and sales manager, is quoted as saying the company should be “running at a profit by late winter.”

It appears Sweet Water Organics has never turned a profit since coming into existence, leaving me to wonder when exactly Sweet Water Organics will start turning a profit – in the process showing some sort of return on the investment the City of Milwaukee has made in SWO?

What’s Next?

When I sat down to put this entry together, I felt conflicted, because I support the idea of urban farming (I’ve got four vegetable beds in my backyard) and didn’t want this entry to discredit the urban farming/aquaponics movement as a whole. However, while I applaud what the folks at Sweet Water Organics are trying to do, I can’t help but wonder if what they’re attempting to do can’t be done better/more profitably/more transparently. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent by various governmental and non-governmental bodies in order to give Sweet Water Organics a “boost” to help it become profitable, but despite years of high hopes and talk about profitability, Sweet Water Organics seems to me to be no closer to profitability than it was when it was first organized.