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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Federal budget cuts have dire consequences in Wisconsin
Let the agony begin
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While Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) was enjoying his red carpet moment with his tea party fans at the opening of "The Ax: The Paul Ryan Budget Part III in 3-D," back home in Wisconsin reality was setting in.

Among the casualties of the cuts Congress imposed on us by failing to avoid sequestration by March 1:

  • Wisconsin schools lose about $8.5 million in federal aid for elementary and secondary education and another $10 million for special education teachers and staff.
  • The state's Head Start program will have to drop 900 kids.
  • $173,000 will come out of childhood immunizations.
  • $9.3 million comes out of programs that curb pollution.
  • And $653,000 is cut from meals for the elderly.

This week in Madison, local school officials struggled to put together actual budgets for next year despite deep cuts in federal funds for essential programs, particularly those that help disadvantaged children.

Cuts to some programs, like special ed, will run afoul of federal law. But if you were making a budget on a shoestring and you were told the federal government was pulling the rug out from under you, would you put all your money into programs that were officially defunded by the feds? Or go along with the idea that you just won't have these programs, despite the law? Or just throw up your hands? These are the choices our school officials face.

Get ready for a lot more agony. Given Gov. Scott Walker's already historic cuts to schools, the sequester squeeze can only mean more headaches and heartaches in our community.

Meanwhile, back in Fantasyland, Paul Ryan is flogging a budget that repeals ObamaCare (which even his Republican colleagues acknowledge is never going to happen) and takes a "brave" stand against food assistance and Medicaid, in order to fight the deficit.

You'd never know it from the heroic reception for Ryan's deficit hawk routine in Washington, but the deficit is actually going down - and has been ever since 2009, when it reached a peak at the height of the recession.

In 2009, the deficit was 10.1% of the nation's gross domestic product. The next year it went to 9%, then 8.7%% in 2011. In 2012 it was 7%. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the deficit will shrink again as a percent of GDP for the 2013 fiscal year.

What happened? Big cuts to government spending and belt-tightening for children and the poor? No - just the opposite. Stimulus spending by the government and more government layouts for unemployment insurance and food stamps pumped money into the economy and helped the recovery. As people spent money, growth returned.

(Nationally, that is. Not so much in Wisconsin, where under Walker we continue to scrape the bottom among all states and in our region in job growth.)

It's clear from countless examples (think of Greece and Spain) that austerity during a recession is the absolute worst economic policy. If a budget like Ryan's cut food assistance to the needy and Medicaid, the consequences for real people would be truly dire.

Worse, when we embrace a long-term regimen of cuts to infrastructure and education, we are cutting off our future.

The House Republicans are embracing Ryan's extreme austerity agenda, knowing full well that it will never go anywhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate. They know the Ryan budget is make-believe. They passed it twice before, and they will pass it again just to score political points. But it is completely unserious.

The details are pure politics. Ryan is trying to have it both ways: In order to make his pretend goal of balancing the budget in 10 years, he happily relies upon the Medicare cuts to hospitals and insurance companies contained in ObamaCare - you know, the cuts he bashed during the 2012 presidential campaign. Then he takes his phony stand on repealing the program. His budget also gets a boost from the tax hikes on the very rich that passed in January, which he staunchly opposed on ideological grounds.

The continued economic recovery makes it possible, on paper, to claim to reach a balanced budget in 10 years. But if the Ryan plan ever really went into effect, the actual effects on the economy would be disastrous.

The real disaster is unfolding right now with the sequestration, thanks in large part to the Republicans' intransigence. We have to hope that, at some point, they stop playing games and get serious.

It might be fun to grandstand about the supposed dire threat of our budget deficits, and draw a line in the sand to show you can be tough on the elderly and kids and the poor. But for the people back home, this budget game is maddening.

We have to keep our community functioning, and political crises cooked up in Washington make that job a lot harder.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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