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What Wisconsin’s Child Tax Credit Says about Our Changing Politics

Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison (Photo: Marynag/Dreamstime)

Over the weekend, I came across a story that illustrates the ongoing coalitional shift shaping our politics. Jessie Opoien of the Capital Times reports that the Wisconsin Assembly has passed a bill that would, among other things, provide families with children a one-time $100 per-child refundable tax credit. The credit would have no income qualifications, unlike the federal child credit, and families would have the option of not accepting it or donating to a charity. In the past, calls for fully refundable child credits have enjoyed considerable support from liberals while meeting with skepticism from small-government conservatives, on the grounds that they’re a form of redistribution. Yet the bill passed on the strength of Republican votes while meeting with resistance from Democratic lawmakers, who’ve denounced the proposal as an “election-year bribe.” Perhaps more interesting is the fact that some Democrats in the Assembly have objected to the proposal on the grounds that only U.S. citizens are eligible for the credit.

What’s going on, exactly? My sense is that the fight over the one-time Wisconsin child credit reflects a growing GOP emphasis on blue-collar voters, and also the Democratic party’s increasing discomfort with distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to questions of public policy. Both tendencies played a role in the congressional debate over tax reform late last year. Republican champions of a greatly expanded refundable portion of the federal child credit met with intense intra-party resistance, but almost every up-and-comer among GOP senators signed onto the idea, presumably because they recognized its appeal. Most Senate Democrats, meanwhile, refused to join the effort, due in part to the concern that the credit would only go to households with valid Social Security numbers, which in turn would exclude children raised by unauthorized immigrant parents.

Not to suggest that what we’re seeing in Wisconsin is an exact replay of last year’s debate. Opoien’s reporting suggests that conservative supporters of the bill have been won over by the fact that it is temporary, and can be characterized as a way to rebate, in a manner of speaking, the state’s fiscal surplus. There is indeed a big difference between a one-time credit and an ongoing credit designed benefit low- and middle-income households long-term. However, if the bill is signed into law, and if it proves popular, I suspect Republicans around the country will take notice.


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