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Scott Walker’s ‘Shame’ Budgets Are Nothing New

The presidential wannabe created unworkable budgets as county executive and now as governor

Jul. 7, 2015
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When Gov. Scott Walker released his 2015-2017 state budget in February, he had hoped to have the state Legislature sign off on it early so that he could spend all of his time campaigning in other states as a Republican presidential contender.

But a funny thing happened this spring.

Walker handed state legislators a difficult if not downright terrible budget, one that made deep cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, showed the bare minimum of support for public schools while boosting taxpayer-funded private voucher schools, fired scientists at the state Department of Natural Resources, made radical revisions to programs for the elderly and disabled, forced impoverished people to take drug tests if they want to receive public benefits, coughed up $220 million in state bonding for a new Bucks arena, and put $1.3 billion of transportation funding on the state’s credit card.

Walker’s proposal was so bad that in a rare moment of candor from a politician, state Rep. Rob Brooks, a Republican from Saukville, called it a “crap budget.”

Now, five months later, after the fiscal year ended on June 30, legislators are still grappling with Walker’s budget and have been forced to take big chunks out of it to get it passed.

It says something about Walker’s agenda and leadership that even though the Legislature is dominated by his fellow Republicans, his budget is woefully inadequate.

That shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s followed Walker’s career.


Walker’s Austerity Budgets

Walker came to power in Milwaukee and Madison after two crises. He was elected as Milwaukee County executive following a budget-busting pension scandal and became governor following the Great Recession, which had a devastating effect on the economy.

He used both of those crises to craft flat-tax austerity budgets that sought to cut public employees’ paychecks, weaken unions, privatize services and gut public assets.

“He said he was a conservative and he wanted to shrink government,” Milwaukee County Supervisor Willie Johnson Jr., a longtime member of the finance committee, told the Shepherd. “It’s consistent with the American Legislative Exchange Council’s agenda.”

But Walker could only go so far with his plans as county executive because he faced a board of supervisors that wouldn’t go along with his agenda and weren’t beholden to him for their political power.

State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) served as a county supervisor during Walker’s final two years in county government. He said that Walker’s budgeting style then and now is the same: Make a big splash about major policy items, hand the legislative branch a budget that doesn’t add up but fulfills his campaign promises, and then hide while legislators work through the budget and make the tough decisions to make the budget work in the real world.

Supervisors took out most of Walker’s privatization plans, found outside funding to keep the transit system running, and made small but steady increases in the property tax to pay for county operations.

Despite Walker’s no-tax-increase pledge, during his tenure in office, property taxes rose 20%. The property tax levy for his first budget as county executive, in 2003, was $218.7 million. His proposed county property tax levy for 2011, in his final recommended county budget, was $262.3 million, $43.6 million higher than his initial budget’s property tax levy.

So how could Walker say with a straight face that he didn’t raise property taxes, while they, in fact, increased?

He forced the board to make the tough decisions and increase taxes and then happily used the board-approved adopted budget, which contained the tax increases, as the base budget for his following year’s proposal. In doing so, he was admitting that the board’s additional tax revenue was necessary.


An Intimidated Legislature

The budget process at the county was all a game, of course. Although Walker would go on a tear on talk radio to talk about irresponsible tax-and-spend county supervisors, the county board was really saving Walker’s skin. And he knew it. He could look like a tax reformer, while the county supervisors would take a hit on conservative talk radio. And the county would continue operating and Walker’s ambitions would rise as he became a perpetual candidate for higher office.

As governor, Walker faces a very different legislative branch, one that is much more compliant. He became the state’s chief executive in the tea party wave election of 2010, and for the most part has had a Republican-dominated Legislature and sympathetic state Supreme Court for his entire time in office. In 2011, Republicans crafted a new gerrymandered legislative map that all but secures their power for the next decade, even when they don’t win as many votes as their Democratic counterparts.

Walker has used one-party rule to his advantage. He only has to negotiate with the Republican leadership in the Legislature, which has eagerly gone along with even his most radical policies, including gutting collective bargaining rights for public employees and making historic cuts to public education at all levels. So when he talks on the presidential campaign trail about his great conservative reforms in a “blue” state, it isn’t because he’s striking bipartisan deals or has won the hearts and minds of Democrats. It’s because he only negotiates with his fellow Republicans in a gerrymandered Legislature. In addition, he dealt a near-death blow to his critics through the collective bargaining-gutting Act 10, which has neutered public employee unions.

“You had to silence all of the public employees, who are the eyes and ears of the public, in order to do all of these awful things,” Boyd McCamish, a director at AFSCME. “That was started in Milwaukee County and it’s happening in state government and metastasizing itself today in this new budget.”

For the most part, Walker has gotten what he wanted through the Legislature. Until this year, when Walker handed his fellow Republicans a budget that even they can’t stomach.

Larson says that this spring’s budget stalemate is the result of Republicans trying to fix Walker’s “crap” budget while not turning their political ally into an enemy who could run a candidate against them in the next election.

“They know that if they speak out and do something that they could be called RINOs and be primaried and booted from office,” Larson said. “We didn’t have that problem at the county board. We could say, ‘We’re going to be the responsible ones’ because we knew that Walker was going to be gone. We could do the right thing. They can’t do that.”


Desperate Wheeling and Dealing

Just about every budget contains special interest pork and backroom deals to line up enough votes for passage.

But the deal-making necessary to fix Walker’s budget is extraordinary, given that the holdout legislators are sympathetic Republicans.

“Walker’s done with the state of Wisconsin,” Larson said of the unofficial presidential candidate. “When he introduced this budget, he was gone. He wasn’t just out of the state. He was out of the country.”

In Walker’s absence, Republican legislative leaders and those on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee took desperate measures to keep enough GOP lawmakers on board. The controversial Bucks arena and prevailing wage proposals were taken out, at least temporarily, but as the Shepherd goes to press the Republican-controlled Senate was planning to add a modified repeal of prevailing wage to its version of the budget. Bonding for transportation projects was reduced. Income tax breaks for married couples and high-income earners were added in. Payday lenders were given major new powers. The state’s open records law was shredded but apparently that has been abandoned. And a big reward was offered to Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who has negotiated a very bad deal for the county in the current Bucks arena proposal—lawmakers are poised to give him the power to take over and privatize public schools and the Joint Finance Committee approved an amendment item that gives the Milwaukee County executive authority over land sales, leases and transfers, as well as all contracts.

No doubt Republicans will try to rush through the budget to have it on Walker’s desk to sign before he officially declares his campaign for president on July 13 but that will not be an easy timetable. 


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