The Taxes That Must Not Be Named

West Allis, Wis.

More than a decade after former Gov. Scott Walker signed into law reforms to protect Wisconsin taxpayers from the increasingly expensive burdens of government employee unions, Democrats still can’t stop talking about him—even if they can’t bring themselves to mention his name.

Mr. Walker left office almost four years ago and isn’t on the ballot this year. But at a Democratic rally in Milwaukee County’s West Allis on Thursday, several speakers angrily referred to “he who must not be named.” Mr. Walker’s signature law, Act 10, was described in tones one might reserve for a description of a heinous crime. After enacting this sensible 2011 reform that limited the collective bargaining power of government unions and made public employees cover more of the costs of their expensive benefit plans, Mr. Walker further enraged the left by making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. This also explains why he was a favorite villain on Thursday at the event hosted by the United Steelworkers at a local union hall.


As for the event’s headliner, Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, it seems there are also a few other things he isn’t eager to mention.

Mr. Barnes is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and there is no race in the country that offers a sharper philosophical contrast.

The New York Times

recently reported that helping Mr. Barnes get elected is the top priority of Vermont’s socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has generously assisted with fundraising. During the Democratic primary, Mr. Barnes received endorsements from Rep.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

(D., N.Y.) and other prominent advocates for government expansion.

Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, is perhaps the most spirited and effective defender of the taxpayer in Washington—a town where there aren’t many of them. An accountant who used to run a manufacturing company, Mr. Johnson habitually annoys his congressional colleagues by pointing out the destructiveness of their spending habits.

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Mr. Barnes for his part is proposing a host of programs that will significantly increase federal spending but is rather vague on the financing. One important example is his plan to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 50. Currently the federal health insurance program is available only to those 65 and older, and even without any expanded eligibility, its trustees say the hospital insurance trust fund will be insolvent by 2028. Over the long term, as costs continue to soar, the Congressional Budget Office says the program’s contributions to the federal deficit will more than double as a percentage of GDP over the next two decades.

Massive taxpayer pain seems inevitable and surely it will be more acute if millions of new beneficiaries are added to the system. So how would Mr. Barnes fund his proposed expansion of Medicare? When asked this question at Thursday’s event in West Allis, the candidate responded:

We think we should absolutely lower the Medicare age of eligibility. Now we can do that by making sure the wealthy pay their fair share. And also the cost of health care in general in this country is out of control and people find themselves bankrupt because of a broken health care system. That’s something that needs to be fixed immediately. We need to talk about the economic toll that individuals and families have been facing because of a broken health care system.

Asked to clarify if his plan would mean an increase in the federal individual income tax rate, Mr. Barnes responded:

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Well, even like Social Security, we need to make sure that the wealthy are paying their fair share into a system that is necessary here in America for social stability and economic stability for people who work their entire lives. Same when it comes to health care.

What tax policy changes might Mr. Barnes support if elected senator? In a 2019 speech, Mr. Barnes said:

And we need to make sure everyone — especially the powerful and the privileged — pay their fair share of taxes. As we all know, the top federal tax rate on the wealthiest was 70% a few decades ago.

If the success in 2018 gave us reason to hope that this path is possible, the next two years will give us an opportunity to realize that hope.

This year Mr. Barnes’s campaign has said that he actually does not support a top tax rate of 70%, but it is perhaps significant that on Thursday the candidate didn’t seek to clarify the fiscal burdens he intends to impose.

Polls and betting markets suggest Mr. Johnson will win. But if Mr. Barnes can manage to prevail, voters may not enjoy learning just exactly how high he wants tax rates to go.


James Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”


Follow James Freeman on Twitter.

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