Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shows off a bumper sticker in his office during… (Andy Manis / Associated…)
Reporting from Madison, Wis. — Even before new Republican Gov. Scott Walker set off a national firestorm by proposing to strip most Wisconsin government workers of their collective bargaining rights, he had hit the ground running.
He pushed $117 million in business tax cuts through the GOP-run statehouse, aggravating the state's deficit in hopes of creating jobs. Then he got the Legislature to agree to a measure requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes in the future, leaving fewer options to close the shortfall.
This week, he proposed a two-year budget to close the projected $3.6-billion deficit. It included big cuts in state aid to local governments — and would bar those cities and counties from raising property taxes to avoid having to make their own reductions.
Most notably, Walker used a small gap in the current fiscal year to fast-track a bill that would give his administration unprecedented powers — not only to weaken public sector unions, but to appoint dozens of powerful new bureaucrats and to determine who gets to stay in the state's Medicaid program.
Democrats contend that Walker seems to be more interested in changing Wisconsin's political dynamics than in financial stewardship. Even outside observers are starting to agree.
"What you've got is a governor who's come in with a great appetite for achieving his ends," said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "This is far more about power than it is about money."
Walker's office did not respond to requests for an interview, but the governor's supporters said Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly backed him and his party in November when they ran on a platform of cutting spending and helping businesses create jobs.
"We're doing what we said we're going to do," said Scott Fitzgerald, majority leader in the state Senate.
Even before the current impasse, Walker turned heads with his hard-charging approach.
"I've been here 19 years and I don't remember any other governor coming in with as ambitious, or effective, a first month," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Walker's campaign motto was "Wisconsin Is Open for Business," and he had promised to lure 250,000 jobs to the state. He quickly pushed through a package of tax cuts for businesses that hired new workers, and he also signed a law protecting businesses from liability in lawsuits. The only business group he battled with was the Democratic-leaning green energy industry, when he proposed increasing regulations on the placement of wind farms.
Like many states, Wisconsin is on a two-year fiscal cycle. But the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected a slight shortfall in the current year, which enabled Walker to propose an emergency measure known as a budget repair bill.
Walker's proposal contains a host of provisions that don't deal directly with this year's shortfall. The most controversial one is the collective bargaining measure. Unions have agreed to benefit and pension concessions to help balance the budget. But Walker said they must be stripped of bargaining rights to allow local governments to survive the deep cuts in money the state passes along to them.
Because of his proposed limit on tax increases, Walker will essentially force those governments to make the cuts he envisions, said Andrew Reschovsky, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I think he really believes that economic growth decisions by businesses and entrepreneurs are made on tax levels and not education and public services," Reschovsky said.
The most consequential provision would allow Walker's administration to determine eligibility for the state's Medicaid program, BadgerCare. Previously, any changes would have to go through the Legislature. Under the bill, the governor has to consult only with the Senate's budget committee.
"We're very worried that tens of thousands of people could lose eligibility," said Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Budget Project, which advocates for social service programs. "There's a pattern of consolidation of a whole lot of authority in the executive branch and a significant reduction in the public's ability to be involved in significant policy decisions."
Walker has said that one of his priorities is making tough, long-term decisions now to avoid a future budget crisis.
Ornstein said Walker might have limited time to advance his program.
"The longer this goes on and we hear more stories about how this is a power grab … it gets more difficult for him," Ornstein said. "These opportunities don't come along that often, and if you blink, it makes it harder to achieve the next time around."