The Magazine

High Noon in Wisconsin

Governor Scott Walker hangs tough.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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By virtually every objective measure, Walker has been an extraordinarily successful governor. In just 16 months, the state has erased a $3.6 billion budget deficit, and according to figures released this month by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, it will have a $154.5 million surplus on June 30, 2013. Property taxes, which had risen by more than 40 percent since 1998, are down for the first time in years.

The unemployment rate is down from 7.7 percent when Walker took office in January 2011 to 6.7 percent in April 2012. Last week, the state’s Department of Workforce Development released numbers showing that Wisconsin had gained some
23,000 jobs in 2011—correcting a misleading earlier report suggesting the state had lost more than 30,000 jobs over the same period.

The subjective measures look good for Walker, too. On the stump, Walker is fond of citing Chief Executive magazine, which had ranked Wisconsin as the 41st-best state for business in 2010 and now ranks it 20th. Walker also points to a survey by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce that found only 10 percent of business owners thought the state was headed in the right direction in 2010, while an eye-popping 94 percent think so today.

So why is Scott Walker facing a recall vote? He hasn’t broken any laws. He hasn’t been charged with a crime. No one has accused him of accepting bribes or molesting children or any of the things most people think of when they think about recalling a sitting governor.

Walker is facing recall for one reason: His reforms have diminished the power of unions, and the unions want revenge.

The reforms that Walker introduced a month after he was sworn in—formally known as Act 10—restricted collective bargaining for most of the state’s employees; in particular, benefits were taken off the table. As a result, most public employees now contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension; and most also now pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their health insurance premium. 

Walker had served as Milwaukee County executive since 2002 and in that job had seen his many attempts at spending reform stymied by unions. He had come to believe that unless the collective bargaining power of public employee unions were limited, as governor he would never be able to bring about the changes that serious spending reform required. His top policy adviser hinted at the changes Walker supported in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in August 2010, three months before the election. “The way the proposal would work is we would take the choice out of the collective bargaining process,” said Ryan Murray, describing how Walker would rework state employees’ health insurance programs.

When Walker, once elected governor, formally introduced the changes, the unions exploded, and Democrats in the Wisconsin senate fled to Illinois to avoid a vote on the measure, effectively blocking it. The subsequent standoff—with national unions orchestrating raucous protests in Madison—lasted several weeks and gained lots of national attention. But ultimately, Republicans in the legislature passed the bill, it survived legal challenges, and it became law. 

The passage of the bill triggered two separate processes, one substantive and one political. On substance—the collective bargaining restrictions gave local governments across Wisconsin the ability to offset budget shortfalls (and avoid layoffs) by requiring public employees to pay more toward their pensions and health care. But even as the changes were being implemented, Democrats and the unions that back them began a campaign to undermine reform. Kathy Vinehout, a Democratic state senator and later a candidate in the Democratic recall primary, says her party conceived of the recalls while they were holed up across Wisconsin’s southern border. “I do believe it was something we talked about when we were in Illinois,” she said at a Democratic candidate forum last month. “And it wasn’t just the governor, but it was a whole lot of our colleagues in the senate.” Democrats, she said, were thrilled when the budget repair bill passed. “The first thing we thought was, ‘Yes! Now the recalls are gonna happen.’ ”

So they spent millions on recall campaigns against six sitting Republican state senators, defeating just two in an outcome that the New York Times called “a victory for Gov. Scott Walker.” And unions participated vigorously in a state supreme court election that pitted a justice closely associated with Walker—David Prosser—against a candidate backed by the state Democratic establishment and the unions. Despite heavy union spending against him, Prosser won.

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