Rural residents feel they are getting shorted by government

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Rural Wisconsin citizens often feel they are getting “the short end of the stick” in resource allocation, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Katherine Cramer.

Her study, to be included in an upcoming book, may help to shed light on the current struggles in the State Capitol over issues like highway funding, a $500-million basketball arena in Milwaukee, reducing taxes on the wealthy, and changes in labor laws and social service programs.

Resentment toward certain groups is a key part of understanding the political mix in Wisconsin, she says in a draft chapter of the book. More than a straightout opposition to government, it is a question of who is benefitting from government programs. Who is deserving?

“We have politics of resentment when political actors mobilize support for cutting back government by tapping into resentment toward certain groups in society rather than appealing to broad principles,” she adds.

The resentment often is aimed at public employees themselves rather than government programs. That helps explain why Gov. Scott Walker’s successful efforts to end most collective bargaining was popular among many in rural areas.

The turning tide against public workers also resulted in most state and local government workers being required to carry a greater share of the cost of their long-held employment benefits.

This was not perceived as a victory for small government. “This was a victory for smalltown Wisconsinites like themselves,” writes Cramer. She is an expert on civic engagement and political participation in public opinion, especially Wisconsin and rural opinion, as well as perspectives on public employees and government.

Targets for resentment may include the wealthy, big money or big business, and the undeserving poor, Cramer writes. “Sometimes these ‘others’ (in the eyes of citizens) were wealthy, but more often they were people who did not work hard enough for the government benefits they enjoy.”

“To be blunt: encouraging people to focus on the undeserving is a way of achieving the goal of limited government without hurting the interests of the wealthy,” she writes.

Cramer interviewed groups across Wisconsin including those from rural area, suburban communities and cities. She said she didn’t find overt racism among rural citizens, but heard it in conversations with the other groups.

The book recalls how Walker ran against the “political machines” in Madison and Milwaukee when he sought to be elected governor. Once elected, the governor emphasized the position by turning down $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail link between the two cities, saying average citizens wouldn’t use the train and there was no guarantee it would eventually be extended to the rural northwest corner of Wisconsin.

Time has changed the situation. Walker is now promoting public taxsupport to help build an arena for professional basketball in Milwaukee. That has drawn sharp criticism – even from some of the right-wing groups which are encouraging his bid to be the next president of the United States.

It’s also more difficult to criticize state government because conservatives control all three branches: the state Supreme Court, large majorities in both houses of the Legislature, and the governor’s chair, which controls the executive branch.

Cramer’s report on interviews with citizens in rural Wisconsin indicated support for public education. Yet the state budget waiting to be passed increases money for and expands government support for non-public education.

Walker has refused to approve additional fees or taxes for road projects. If highway construction were scaled back, rural residents will be watching to see how their areas did compared to Milwaukee.

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