The Magazine

On Wisconsin!

How Republicans won the battle of Madison.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES AND JOHN MCCORMACK
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Scott Walker was finished. 

On Wisconsin!


It was Wednesday, March 9, and Governor Walker had decided to visit the Wisconsin State Capitol before he headed off to give his “Ag Day” speech that afternoon.

Walker figured he had been very patient. Four weeks earlier he had proposed his budget repair bill, and he had the votes to pass it. But one week after that, all 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum they thought necessary to hold a vote on the legislation. In the days that followed, top Republican legislators and senior aides to Walker spoke regularly with Democrats in an effort to forge a compromise—several times believing that they had reached a tentative understanding that would allow the senate to take up the controversial measure, only to have the agreement collapse. The more this happened the less likely a compromise seemed. 

So, shortly before 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Walker addressed a meeting of the senate Republican caucus. It was time to end the standoff and move forward, he said. The world didn’t know it, but Republicans had been given the tools to do that two days earlier, in rulings from three nonpartisan bodies that allowed them to tweak the bill slightly and pass it with only a simple majority present in the senate. But Walker kept his comments general. He said that while Wisconsinites were divided about the wisdom of his proposals, there was widespread agreement that the stalemate had to end.

At a press conference that afternoon, a reporter asked Walker about a letter to him from senate minority leader Mark Miller. Walker had not received the letter—it was released to the media before it was delivered to his office. Miller offered two choices he knew would be rejected and said that if Walker did not meet his demands it would be clear the governor wanted to “keep lines of communications closed.” 

It was a final act of bad faith from Miller. A few hours later, Republicans in the state senate moved swiftly to pass the tweaked bill. And two days later, Walker signed it. 

It was over.

What happened in Wisconsin has broad implications. The state is only one of many that face massive deficits following years of irresponsible spending—in Wisconsin, $3.6 billion over the next two years. Walker ran for governor last fall on reducing that spending and balancing the budget. He won with more than 52 percent of the vote. So he proposed a budget repair bill to begin that process. 

Democrats, who lost not only the governor’s mansion but also both chambers of the state legislature, were powerless to stop Walker from implementing his agenda. Encouraged by the interest groups that help elect them, particularly the unions, these Democrats did the one thing they could to slow him down. It didn’t work. The failure of their effort and the enactment of the reforms will have profound policy and political consequences, not only for Wisconsin but also for the country. 

As it was originally proposed, Walker’s budget repair bill had two main components. The first would require public employees paid by the state government to contribute more to the cost of their health care and pensions. The second would limit the collective bargaining power of public employee unions to wages, a change that would allow county and local governments to undertake cost-saving measures without having them blocked by unions.  

The unions quickly conceded the first of these two points—at least rhetorically. Union leaders and their allies in the state legislature claimed that public employees would gladly contribute more to their pensions and health care premiums—the 5.8 percent of their salaries on the former and 12.6 percent of the premiums on the latter requested by the governor—if they were allowed to keep all of their collective bargaining rights.  

It was a smart public relations move. The unions seemed reasonable and willing to negotiate. 

Walker was portrayed in the media as obstinate and too eager to “strip the collective bargaining rights” of Wisconsin’s public employees. His poll numbers reflected the criticism.

But even as they offered to contribute more, unions throughout Wisconsin were rushing through contract extensions that would exempt them from having to pay more towards benefits. In some localities, public employee unions were not only pushing to avoid the increased benefit contributions, they were attempting to force through pay raises.

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