Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Too Pure for Pork

Gov. Walker is a latest of state politicians from both parties who have an aversion to federal funds.

By - Apr 9th, 2015 01:10 pm
Pork. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Pork. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Wisconsin has always been a state that’s too pure for pork. Voters here never seem to reward or punish a U.S. Senator or congressional representative based on whether they can deliver federal programs or funding for Wisconsin, and that’s been true seemingly forever.

As veteran journalist Marc Eisen wrote in a column for Milwaukee Magazine in 2009, “There’s something deep in the Wisconsin character, a Badger thriftiness and sense of political rectitude, that seems to recoil at the notion that politicians should bring home the bacon. No one understood that better than puritan [and Democrat] Bill Proxmire, whose long senatorial run was marked by his temperance crusade against government waste.”

As Eisen noted, this aversion to scoring federal funds has been a bipartisan one, which might help explain why Wisconsin has always trailed most states in federal dollars received. When the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has looked at such data, “the findings are usually the same” for Wisconsin, says WisTax president Todd Berry. “Not too hot.”

A recent analysis by Wallet Hub found that states like New Mexico, Mississippi and Kentucky did best at grabbing federal spending while Wisconsin ranked behind 32 states.

If anything, state voters’ apathy about getting our share of the federal pie has been heightened by conservative suspicions of Democratic President Barack Obama. Indeed, it was just a year ago that some Tea Party Republicans pushed to approve a resolution declaring Wisconsin’s right to secede from the federal union.  The idea was repudiated by most Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, but this sort of sentiment helps provide support for his repeated rejection of federal funding, which somehow wins him political points for assuring that state residents get less return for federal taxes they pay.

As Milwaukee County Executive, Walker declared he would not accept federal stimulus funding and blasted Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle for doing so. In his book, Unintimidated, he argued that the “‘free’ money from Washington wasn’t free.” He noted for instance, that “once the highways were built… the stimulus funds would disappear and Wisconsin taxpayers would be left… to maintain the new roads.”

Of course, that’s true of any new highway built in the state, and is why the state should avoid overbuilding. But if you’re going to build, and clearly Walker favors more highways, why not pay for it with federal spending that your state’s taxpayers helped underwrite?

Walker ran for governor in 2010 arguing against the high speed rail project that Doyle had undertaken. As his opponent Mayor Tom Barrett pointed out at the time, Wisconsinites were paying $140 million in federal taxes for the entire federal high-speed rail program, but were getting $810 million for a rail line better connecting Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison to Minneapolis. Quite a deal. And the annual operating costs for this were estimated at $1 million a year.

Walker constantly repeated the mantra that high-speed rail would cost $7.5 million a year for its operating costs, but 80 percent of that would have been covered by federal funding, experts said. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel never reported this during the gubernatorial campaign, but as soon as Walker was elected and it was clear he would reject high speed rail, the paper did numerous stories reporting that the operational costs for the state would be minimal.)

Having gotten away with this once, Walker again used this argument to reject federal funding to expand Medicaid in Wisconsin, which has lost the state some $500 million. Walker argued that the federal government could some day revoke Obamacare, but that clearly won’t happen while Obama is president, meaning at least four years of lost funding.

Walker is also going out of his way to slash federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits for poor people in Wisconsin. Under his new approach, any able-bodied adult without children who is not working at least 20 hours per week a total of 90 days in three years will be dropped from the program. Walker argues that a SNAP benefit of $123 month or $1,476 a year makes these people so comfortable they won’t look for work. But how then do they afford to rent an apartment, buy clothes and other necessities?

For felons who have great difficulty getting jobs, for low-income people who have better luck getting an off-the-books job in the underground economy, for anyone fired who has trouble getting another job within 90 days, too bad: They will be dropped from the program. That’s bad for them, but worse for state taxpayers: The staff and administrative costs needed to cut 62,000 people from the program will cost the state $58 million. This money will be spent to lose $92 million in federal SNAP funding, which in turn is estimated to generate $166 million in economic activity.

Last week we learned that Walker’s budget will cut $5.7 million in state funding to reduce rural and urban runoff pollution. That may sound unimportant but such runoff or “nonpoint” sources accounts for nearly 90 percent of all water pollution in metro Milwaukee and has created a huge “dead zone” — so lacking in oxygen it can’t support most aquatic life — in the Green Bay portion of Lake Michigan. It is the major water pollution problem facing the state.

Fighting this pollution was a high priority for the state Department of Natural Resources, its Secretary Cathy Stepp has recently said. (In this another case where Walker’s budget cuts to her agency caught Stepp unawares?). About $2 million of the money cut goes for grants to groups combatting urban or agricultural runoff, and another $1.5 million goes to state agencies or nonprofits for research, education or technical assistance to help solve the problem.

Typically, such funding can be used to match federal money when applying for federal anti-pollution money. Federal grants routinely require a 50 percent match, which means it’s quite likely this $5.7 million will result in a substantial loss of federal money as well. (It remains to be seen if the huge proposed cuts for UW System funding — if they are adopted — will result in less federal dollars for research flowing to UW-Madison.)

There are times when Walker’s rhetoric suggests state government is an island, rather than part of a federal system and interconnected with local governments. The $5.7 million reduction will also trim funding that pays for the salaries of 12 to 18 county land conservation staff, according to Jim VandenBrook, Executive Director of the Madison-based, Wisconsin Land+Water, which works with 450 Land Conservation Committee statewide. The staff getting cut, he says, “are the folks that work directly with farmers to get conservation on the land.” Without them, federal incentive monies that help pay for efforts to reduce agricultural runoff will “go unspent,” he adds.  Actually they will be spent — in other states.

But we can all feel morally pure for rejecting all that silly federal money — and its beneficial impact on Wisconsin’s economy.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

33 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Too Pure for Pork”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Everything feds send comes with strings that usually cost a bunch. Medicaid is braking the bank across the US and it is getting worse fast. Will push out schools, hiways and everything else. Feds with their plans for education both Bush and obama have screwed up education.

  2. Penrod says:

    There is an upside to refusing federal money: It keeps the accounting honest. We can see the costs of a proposed or existing program because the cost show up in our taxes. If we are not willing to pay 100% for a program, then it probably isn’t worth having.

    At a perhaps offensively theoretical level, a great deal of federal spending isn’t authorized by the US Constitution. I understand that responsible people mock that concept, but you are welcome to consider me part of the lunatic fringe. Believing the feds should submit to the constitution is so…so…so…racist…tin foil hattish…irresponsible.

    Still, just where does the Constitution authorize the federal government to pay for things like intra-county transportation systems such as buses? We may want the feds to do so, and doing so may really be a good thing, but is it authorized? Can you cite a specific part of the Constitution? Possibly the Corporate Welfare for Bus Manufacturers Clause?

    Free school lunches may be a great idea for those who need subsidies, but where does the constitution authourize the feds to pay for them? Possibly under the Corporate Welfare for Agricultural Enterprises Clause?

    If state taxpayers are willing to pay the real cost of programs out of their own pockets, that’s fine. If a project isn’t worth doing without federal subsidies, we are better off without it.

  3. PMD says:

    What does the Constitution specifically say about airplanes and tanks?

  4. Ben says:


    Your theoretical questions are interesting, but it skirts around that fact that those programs are being funded out of our own pockets, whether we accept them or not. Federal subsidies don’t just appear out of thin air – Wisconsin taxpayers are contributing to them.

    I understand your perspective that your interpretation of the Constitution is the correct one, but until the Supreme Court rules for your interpretation it is just that and we need to accept the system as it currently is. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fight tooth and nail for your interpretation, but that doesn’t mean we have to play by a stricter set of rules than any other state.

    As long as the Federal Government is spending money on these programs and Wisconsin taxpayers are paying Federal taxes, why shouldn’t we be working to make sure as much of that money is coming to Wisconsin vs. other states? I see no hypocrisy in both criticizing the system and working to make sure we take as much advantage of it as possible.

    In terms of strings being attached, that is a reasonable consideration, but in the examples cited above the risk of the strings was far outweighed by the reward. We are simply leaving money on the table so we can feel better about ourselves, while we fund the economic activity of other states through our contribution to the Federal coffers.

  5. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Incredibly naive and stupid. If the programs cost more than they are worth, they will break the budget as they are doing across country and it will get far worse and you still want to take them up. Many programs from the Feds have been total disasters Halfast trains, Obamacare exchanges, like Urban Renewal, NoChild left Behind, cash for clunkers, TARP. Wisconsin put together it’s own program so that we can cover everyone that wants coverage, at a reasonable price without any nutty exchange.
    The taxpayers gave you guys 8 years and you did not fix anything, made things worse. Only 1 of 4 kids in MPS, in third grade, can read. That is if they make it through the year with all the crime.
    But you will be able to ride around in circle with your new choochoo.
    Guys like you are the ones that have wrecked Milwaukee and Wisconsin under Doyle. budget is balanced, property taxes down, schools did not have to make cutbacks and all is right with the Lord.

  6. Dan says:

    Article I, Section 8, Clause 1.

  7. Penrod says:

    Hi Dan, if your comment (#6) was a response to mine, how does Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 apply? “Section 8 – The Text
    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

    If you were responding to PMD (comment 3) re: airplanes and tanks, I agree with you entirely. The Founders understood that technology would change, and with it the weapons of war.

  8. Penrod says:

    Hi Ben, re: your Comment #4, “programs are being funded out of our own pockets”. I disagree. At best, half of each program is paid out of our pockets. The other half comes from the pockets of future taxpayers as we lay up debt which probably cannot be paid except by inflating the currency. The immediate money comes mostly from China, to which we and our children owe trillions. Scott Walker’s turning down $810,000,000 in federal money saved future taxpayers well over a billion dollars in future debt costs. We should applaud him.

    “until the Supreme Court rules for your interpretation it is just that ” Elected officials take an oath to defend the Constitution. They do not take an oath to grab all the power and spend all the money they possibly can until the Supreme Court says they have gone too far: It is those officials’ own responsibility to determine for themselves what is Constitutional and to refuse to contribute to that which is not. It is also their responsibility to decide for themselves what is a proper expenditure of the taxpayers’ money. Refusing to take money which they consider irresponsible to be offered is a responsible act.

    That some of our state governments are more responsible than the federal government and a number of other state governments is a good thing.

  9. 2fs says:

    Even if the high-speed rail would have cost $7.5 million per year…the population of the state of Wisconsin is about 5.8 million. So that’s about $1.30 per year per citizen. Wow – that really breaks the bank.

  10. Wis Conservative Digest says:

    Every one of these thing goes way over budget, bus goes faster and it is private. Left always does the same thing buys a porker and lose our butts.

  11. bruf says:

    Don’t any of you conservatives in providing health services for the poor?
    The term “mean spirited” comes to mind.

  12. Kent Mueller says:

    By my tally that is at least 1.5 billion in federal funds (and counting) that Walker has rejected. As noted, we’ve been paying the bills for the federal government, paying in, most years, every year about a billion more than we get back. Now that we’re the Alabama of the North that may have changed. Plus, isn’t it ironic that the “taker” states, most dependent on federal dollars, tend to be the reddest politically (and in terms of neck color). Ones that pride themselves on their independence and sometimes make noises of secession would have riots in their dirt streets without federal money. Blue states pay the bills and almost all get less back from the feds than they pay in.
    Just by rejecting high-speed rail Scott Walker not only shoved Wisconsin back into the 20th Century, he also kicked one of the most respected European companies in the teeth, ruining our reputation in the Euro business community right after the Doyle admin. and Milwaukee County had made great strides in attracting Euro investment. That was at a time when European companies were looking for foot-holds in North America and Wisconsin and Milwaukee looked like the place to do it. Now our rep is “They break contracts and their politics are weird. Don’t invest”. Conservatives break contracts? Good to know.
    Oh, it also failed to better connect us to the fourth or fifth largest economic engine on the planet (the only one I’m aware of for humans) just 80 miles to our south and boost the economies of Madison, Eau Claire, Lacrosse and all places between, but we’re wading into concepts difficult for conservatives to comprehend (needs more flag and bible perhaps). This next part is easy, breaking that contract will cost the state over 100 million in actual dollars just for lawsuits and cost up to 500 hundred jobs in the inner city of Milwaukee where they are needed most.
    That’s just high speed rail. Oh yes, those federal dollars we DO get back? Fewer of them since federal research money will dry up with the academic brain drain — you can’t attract top research talent to a state that demonizes education and slashes funding.
    Heck of a job, Scotty! Oh, and speaking of jobs…

  13. Ben says:

    @ WCD I’m not even sure why I’m feeding you, but you are the only naive one if you think Wisconsin’s programs are cheaper in the long run compared to what it would have cost to create an exchange. Although there are some significant areas of Obamacare that should be reviewed and changed, you fail to grasp that our health care system was on the verge off collapse before anything was passed. Same with the litany of other issues you threw out.

    @Penrod – You do bring up some good points. I’m more Keysian in my economic philosophy so I don’t mind deficit spending in lean years but as the economy recovers and becomes stable we should see a reduction, especially in social welfare areas since they shouldn’t be needed at such high levels.

    I think where we differ is that you somehow think if we turn down the money it isn’t going to be spent elsewhere. If that was the choice I might agree with you. Instead the choice is either spend the money in Wisconsin or it wiil be spent by another state. In this reality I would always want the money to flow to us. Walker didn’t save us money when he turned that money down, it just went to a different state.

    I totally understand your rational for wanting to take a stand against what you see as wasteful spending but until you can get enough votes to change the system we have to live in reality.

    In response to your responsibility of elected officals, at this point in time there is nothing unconstitutional with how the Federal Government is acting. If on principal they think there are aspects that are, I say go fight that fight as hard as you can, but until they win, they should be working to make sure that their constituents are best served in the current system. You can stand on principal but don’t pretend that is changing the system – the money is still going out the door.

  14. Penrod says:

    If the train is such a wizbang great idea, why did it need $810,000,000 borrowed from the Chinese to make it go? Business commuters are part of profit seeking entities: Exactly why should the rest of us (including businesses) pay taxes so that certain favored businesses (AKA Corporate Welfare Queens) can get subsidized transportation for their employees? That fosters economic inefficiency, not produce it.

    Great engines of economic growth make money.

    Taking money which is wasted on things which run at a loss just for the sake of taking the money is the way to the poor house. There is one way and only one way of increasing our nation’s wealth: make things which run at a profit.

    If European companies decide that they can’t exist here without subsidies then we are better off without them. When they produce products and services which we want, at prices we are willing to pay, both side make out. With subsidies, the corporate welfare queens pocket our money. They win, we lose.

  15. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I have spent 50 plus years in healthcare system and the only problems we ever had were caused by the dopy people, in govt. It was no where near collapse. More gov got involved the worse it got. We were just fine without obamacare and the dopy liberals that designed it. It is not an accident that over 50% of the people hate it.
    Walker saved us billions by staying out of the more Medicaid, dumping that stupid train and not doing an exchange. Oregon spent 300 million and it never worked.

  16. 2fs says:

    Penrod: You’re obviously unaware that NO transportation system – including cars and freeways – makes a profit. Air travel, rail, roads, all are heavily subsidized. is one source.

  17. PMD says:

    “We were just fine without obamacare”

    The healthcare system was just fine without the Affordable Care Act? 45 million people or so uninsured, but everything was just fine? Is that seriously what you are claiming?

  18. Gary says:

    “Too pure for pork”
    Many orthodox religious believe they’re too pure for pork.

  19. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Wisconsin has a system that allows everyone to get healthcare, we are at 97%. Obamacare leaves 48 million without.

  20. PMD says:

    The percentage of uninsured in Wisconsin is 3%? Where do you get that figure? Also please share your source for the 48 million because of Obamacare?

  21. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Try doing your homework before blabbering all the time.

  22. Ben says:


    First China only holds 7% of our debt and I actually think it isn’t a bad thing as it gives them more of a disincentive to take action that would hurt us as it would hurt them.

    You also are are not addressing my major point in that the money is going to be spent somewhere. It isn’t going to magically revert back to pay down debt. The choice was spend it in Wisconsin or spend it somewhere else. That was the reality of the situation.

  23. PMD says:

    Funny you should mention homework. Actually I did do my homework. The Kaiser Family Foundation says that 566,000 Wisconsin residents are uninsured. There are about 5.7 million people in Wisconsin. My calculator says that makes the uninsured rate in Wisconsin about 10%.

    So, again, where did you get the 3% figure?

  24. David says:

    WI companies have accepted billions in Federal support over the decades for trucks built in Oshkosh, ships in Marinette, military spending on bases and law enforcement, Amtrak, the highway system, and educational research. WI has always fallen back in the pack in receiving Federal funds because we do not have the multiple military bases that many southern states have. In the 1800s, Federal support for rail systems was a boon that Chicago won out over Milwaukee. Stem cell research at UW Madison had been leading the nation in the past few decades and that may have dwindled due to opposition from extremist politicians that are clueless and continue WI’s current path on a downward spiral.

    WI had been a national leader on energy efficiency and renewable energy production in 2010, that leads to greater inflow of Federal support and interest and would carve into the over $13 Billion annual export of energy dollars. WI is now a middle of the road state and actually has extremists writing out the use of specific words and phrases like climate change, energy efficiency, renewable energy, etc..

    All of these are beneficial to the regional economy. We can all argue whether the expenditures are worth it as a nation. Issues and funding for heath care through the ACA would be very beneficial to the regional economy and to thousands of families in the short and long term. Without decent health care, people die, and families go bankrupt.

  25. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    that was before the last Badgercare was put in place, the Leg reference bureau has correct figures. Everyone can get coverage in this state if they wish and we are not exposed to the enormous mess that medicaid is. Everything the Feds do is mess. That is why people like you are not in office anymore.

  26. PMD says:

    “the Leg reference bureau has correct figure”

    Prove it WCD. Share a link or something. I shared a link, so let’s see you do the same.

  27. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Dopey David demagogs again. Wisconsin is one of very few states that has everyone covered if they wish.
    Tommy, Scott voted for Badgercare , we led the nation in getting our people covered. Medicaid is so poorly run that it is bankrupting everyone across the country. Look at the projections, they are scary. PMD do your own work, you have big mouth but no brain.

  28. PMD says:

    Ah yes the infamous “do your own homework” argument. Accepted by reasonable people everywhere. Well I can’t find the 3% figure anywhere, so I have to assume you’re making it up. Please explain to me why anyone should take anything you say seriously.

    I can make stuff up too. It’s fun. Obamacare has been so successful that as of today not a single American is uninsured. It’s so popular even Republicans love it. They love it so much in fact that even Ted Cruz is signing up for it.

  29. David says:

    It is ironic how the writer for troll organization DWC made his living as a pharmacist filling prescriptions paid for by insurance companies, SeniorCare, BadgerCare, and Medicare and he saw first hand how drugs kept people alive. Is that writer also a parasite that received pork from the systems he rants about?

  30. David says:

    Walker and his fellow stooges and snake oil salesmen are fine with taking in millions in dark pork money for themselves to perform the bidding of their benefactors and implement ALEC laws that are harmful to a majority of Wisconsin citizens, and diminish us all.

  31. David says:

    Social Security and Medicare benefits fund millions into the Wisconsin economy annually and provide elderly with a more respectful and dignified life. These funds are vital for the regional economy. My wife and I are two of those elders that depend on these government programs that Republicans would like nothing better than to wipe them out. Republicans like nothing better than to use these programs as scapegoats for a bloated Federal deficit created by politicians passing the buck to each administration throughout USA history, and funding illegal wars and defense spending.

  32. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Reagan mad it clear that the Conservatives have no interest in screwing our SS. The bloated debt comes from both parties, Obama the worst. Did you mean the war that Hillary voted fir?

  33. David says:

    All administrations in USA history, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, have pushed their debt forward to the next President. Obama is the current one left holding the bag of bloated debt accumulated by the entire history of the country. Most Republicans and many Democrats have voted for past wars, and neocons are always rattling war cries as long as we keep piling it on the debt load without seeking methods to pay for defense spending and indebting our children, and using domestic spending as a scapegoat cause. The illegal Iraq War, and Afghan Wars have been on the USA credit card.

    In regards to WI pork, WI has always been one of the states for decades that sends $1 in taxes to the Feds, and receives 50 cents back in various forms. Other states receive $1.50 and more over those decades. Some of that return of Federal dollars is in the form of military bases that adds to a regional economy. Federal spending in a regional economy spurs other development. This is an economic fact.

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