The conservative tide: how high will it rise?

In his inaugural address, Gov. Scott Walker might have fired his administration’s opening salvo against LGBT equality when he vowed to “honor and respect the foundational role of the family in our society.”

Although most LGBT people would agree with Walker’s statement on its face value, it sounded to many like standard-issue rhetoric from the anti-gay right. “I certainly saw that line, and it certainly is a concerning line,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger.

Amid the rising conservative tide in Wisconsin, as throughout the nation, LGBT citizens and political progressives are anxiously watching the Tea Party-infused GOP and searching for signs of coming struggle. Although most of the newly elected Republicans ran campaigns focused on creating jobs, eliminating deficits and reducing government, their social views are largely in step with those of the radical right.

“We can’t even see the end of the right wing they’re going to run to,” predicted Wisconsin Democratic Party chair and former Fair Wisconsin director Mike Tate.

“We know that they’re going to come out and do some very anti-LGBT stuff,” he said. “If they start persecuting LGBT people, it sends a signal right out of the gate that these people are going to dismantle the Wisconsin way of life.”

But Belanger was relieved that the first round of legislation proposed by the incoming GOP did not include a measure to repeal the state’s domestic partner registry. “It’s really going to be interesting to see how closely (Republicans) stick to their jobs agenda,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll stick to the jobs development stuff, but it’s something that we’re really watching.”

For now, Belanger is taking a wait-and-see approach about the new Republican majority. So is Bill Keeton, director of government relations for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. While Belanger is concerned about the domestic partner registry, Keeton will focus on the GOP’s proposal for HIV/AIDS-related funding and Medicaid programs.

During his campaign, Walker made conflicting statements about cutting the state’s BadgerCare program. Various sources estimated that he would enact policies to eliminate between 68,000 and 350,000 people from healthcare coverage under the program, which includes many Wisconsinites with HIV/AIDS.

But Keeton is confident that HIV/AIDS funding has bipartisan support in Madison.

“The fight against AIDS has really been something that members of both parties have embraced,” Keeton said. “We’ve worked hard all these years building consensus and not focusing on programs where there’s dissension.”

Tanya Atkinson, vice president of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, is more wary of the impact conservatives will have on her area of interest – sexual health and reproductive freedom.

“Signs indicate the new leadership will be pursuing a dangerous agenda,” Atkinson said. “Their goals are to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, to restrict access to birth control, and to stop comprehensive sex education that also protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.

“If Scott Walker and new legislative leaders are serious about reducing government intrusion and enhancing fiscally responsible healthcare practices, they should support strengthening the health of Wisconsin with access to basic reproductive healthcare.”

On the Legislature’s opening day, lawmakers proposed a flurry of measures that, while not attacking LGBT rights or reproductive freedom, contained a strong conservative bent.

“At 8:01 a.m. this morning, the Republicans began their bait-and-switch away from job creation and onto right-wing social issues,” said openly gay state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, in a statement released Jan. 3.

“Between 8:01 a.m. and 8:02 a.m. this morning, Rep. Joel Kleefisch circulated 15 co-sponsorship memos to all legislators asking us to become sponsors of right-wing legislation, highlighted by permitting guns on school property, eliminating same day voter registration and a bill that prohibits certain stem cell research equipment from a proposed tax exemption,” Pocan said. “Not one bill will create jobs. Less than one hour later, Rep. Dean Kaufert circulated further expanded gun legislation.”

“Wisconsinites deserve better from Republicans on their first day on the job, but this is just the start,” Pocan added. “It makes me wonder what other right-wing bills they are going to introduce.”

Since Jan. 3, many Democrats have echoed the charge that GOP lawmakers have wandered off their campaign message of job growth and budget cutting. An Associated Press analysis of eight bills submitted by Walker during his first week in office concluded they would increase the deficit by $80 million a year over the next two years.

Democrats, already incensed over Walker’s decision to give up $823 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail project, now say the governor’s decision to have Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen join a lawsuit against federal healthcare reform will prove costly both to the state and the nation.

“At a time of deep financial crisis, Scott Walker has sent J.B. Van Hollen on a costly political errand that, if it were successful, would have the effect of denying healthcare to tens of thousands of Wisconsinites and adding $1 trillion to the federal deficit over the next 20 years,” Tate said. “Van Hollen has already shown how political this is by consulting with Texas Republican operatives on the taxpayer dime. He must now be explicit about what costs there will be to Wisconsin taxpayers when their lawyers are doing Scott Walker’s partisan bidding, instead of fighting crime.”

In order to fulfill his campaign promise of creating 250,000 new jobs over the next four years, Walker is relying primarily on bills to make Wisconsin more attractive to corporations by giving them tax breaks, curbing union power and making it extremely difficult for consumers to sue manufacturers and other companies. This combination of proposals led Tate to charge that Walker was trying “to turn Wisconsin into Mississippi.”

More of Walker’s economic plan will be revealed when he submits his budget next month.

Democrats say they will tap more than 15,000 volunteers to counter any Republican proposals that are not targeted to improving the state’s economy and to hold Republican freshmen legislators accountable for their campaign promises to focus on the economy and the budget. In a similar spirit, the progressive group One Wisconsin Now has launched, a website that’s designed to be “a continuing clearinghouse of information about the 31 new conservative members of the Republican legislative majority.”

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