Politics & Policy

Next Up, Walker’s Budget Battle

The campaign for fiscal sanity in Wisconsin continues.

For Scott Walker, it was another night and another hit.

At 8:02 p.m. last Thursday, in a cramped Madison studio, he sat casually in front of the cold lens of a network camera. His shoulders were loose, his ruby-red tie slightly askew. Sean Hannity of Fox News beamed in, his voice crackling through the near-invisible earpiece.

A day earlier, on March 9, the GOP-controlled Wisconsin state senate had passed Walker’s budget-repair bill after an exhausting, three-week stalemate. The full-time occupation of the state capitol by labor activists was dissolving. Union armies had raised fists for nearly a month, with the gusto of Les Miserables extras, but they had lost.

Walker was Hannity’s A-block, the lead story, and the gregarious host was pleased to have booked Wisconsin’s Javert. Hannity turned first to the curbing of collective bargaining for public-sector workers, the keystone of Walker’s bill. “Governor,” he opened warmly, “I guess in one phrase, this wasn’t easy, but a win for you.”

Walker grimaced. He then launched into a low-key riff about how “the taxpayers” were the real victors, diverting the conversation away from talk of his political prowess.

The rookie Republican governor was smart to deflect. As his national profile continues to rise, Walker knows that his Badger State battles have only begun. Facing down on-the-lam Democrats — and winning — was a relief; closing a $3.6 billion budget gap will be a higher-order task.

Earlier this month, Walker took to the floor of the state assembly to outline his biennial fiscal agenda. The budget-repair bill was but an appetizer. Walker’s full menu features $4.2 billion in cuts, a near 7 percent reduction in state spending. If passed, over $700 million in education funds and over $1 billion in county and municipal aid would be carved out. The state’s Medicaid budget would be cut by $500 million. Over 20,000 government jobs would be eliminated. The state commerce department would disappear.

Enacting this package will be tricky. As Walker pivots, Democrats are scurrying to keep the fresh wounds open. Money from liberals nationwide is pouring into efforts to recall eight GOP state senators. Others are plotting to recall Walker when he is eligible next year. Thousands of protesters continued to swarm the capitol grounds on Saturday. The B-list of lefty stars — Jesse Jackson, Michael Moore, and Susan Sarandon, to name a few — continues to jet into Madison to bloviate beneath the white-granite dome.

Walker foes are also looking to trip up the new law as it kicks into gear. Democrats have filed a complaint with Dane County officials, charging that senate Republicans violated the state’s open-meetings law during passage. Secretary of State Doug La Follette, a Democrat and descendant of progressive hero “Fighting Bob” La Follette, is attempting to delay the bill’s implementation. Union bosses are hustling to complete deals with friendly municipalities before the law becomes active later this month.

In every sense, they are digging in.

Walker, in an interview with National Review Online, shrugs off the noise. As his incensed opponents turn up the volume, he says he will resist the temptation to do the same. Don’t expect any rhetorical echoes of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who gained fame last year for his frank combativeness with public employees.

“It doesn’t work so much in the Midwest if you are in people’s faces and going Jersey on them,” Walker chuckles. “You know you have to make the tough decisions, but you don’t relish it.”

Walker, to be sure, has every intention of pursuing all elements of his muscular budget proposal in coming weeks. Yet the key for him, he says, is making Democrats realize that he is not looking to make enemies with them, regardless of how angry they are about the budget-repair bill. “[The budget-repair bill] was not about getting a political victory,” he says. “It was about getting our economy on track. It’s time to move forward.”

Despite Democrats’ claims that he is a dogged ideologue, Walker tells me that he is more than ready for the second budget round to be one of civil compromise. “Look, we have got a big budget for the next few years,” he says. “There are going to be a lot of details that we are going to have to work on. But I am not drawing a line in the sand on everything that is in there. The only line I am drawing is that there cannot be any tax increases. We will work with lawmakers, including some Democrats, on the components.”

Walker is optimistic that he can forge new alliances in Madison. That being said, he is well aware that when tough budget votes come up, Democrats could easily retreat to northern Illinois once again, running away from the process. “Technically, could they go pull this again? Sure,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty clear that the [Democrat state senators] I spoke with over the past few weeks wanted to come back.”

“From what I can tell, many of them never want to do this kind of thing again,” Walker continues. “It was very stressful for them personally and they felt that their leader had no endgame. Plus, many of them are facing serious recalls. If they pull against the budget, I think it would make them vulnerable. It would have to be all 14 [Democrat] senators again, or else I don’t see it happening.”

Even if they stay in Madison for the budget brawl, Senate Democrats will likely cause trouble for Walker. Over the weekend, as they returned to Madison and rallied under the rotunda, all 14 escapees were hailed has heroes by the throngs of college students and union heavies. Compromise, for the moment, is hardly a priority.

Indeed, the Democrats also see ample opportunity to rattle Walker. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the upper chamber, but if three GOP senators are recalled, Democrats will take over the state senate. Walker says he is eyeing the Democrats’ maneuvers closely, but for now, does not see the recall campaigns — at least those against Republicans — catching fire.

“I am taking them seriously,” Walker says. “It is clear that the national union bosses have come in and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, on television ads already. They are making this personal; they are out to punish senators. But I think when the voters look at the [budget-repair bill], they will realize that world didn’t come to an end and that the scare tactics were false.”

Walker swats away the idea that his budget fix could face legal challenges. Democrats complain that the Republican state senators passed it without proper notice. “There is absolutely no way [it is derailed],” he says. “The conference committee had counsel from the Senate’s chief clerk, who has worked for four different majorities — two Democrat and two Republican. This is not somebody who’s a partisan. He clearly laid out the statute rules for the special session and they fully complied with the law.”

Beyond the legislature, Walker may also find opposition in the courts. In early April, a seat on the state’s Supreme Court is up for election. Incumbent Republican David Prosser is set to face Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg, whose supporters have popped up at capitol rallies. With judicial conservatives holding a 4-3 majority on the high court, whoever wins could potentially determine the future of Walker’s budget.

Walker, again, shakes off any nagging concern. “[The April race] will not affect the bill one way or the other,” he says. “The law is clear no matter who is on the Supreme Court.” Besides, despite Democrat chatter, he predicts that the budget-repair law “will never make it there.”

Should Walker’s budget-repair bill survive, the political battle will remain heated. Making the argument for his overall budget plan, on the road at town-hall meetings and elsewhere, is a crucial part of Walker’s strategy to win back public support, which dipped in the polls during the drawn-out budget debate.

“A month from now,” Walker says, “people will realize that the only thing that is going to happen is that public employees, like me, will pay more for pension and health care, but still a lot less than the middle class pays. And government workers will no longer be forced to be in a union. They’ll have a right to choose.”

Looking ahead, Walker remains hopeful that his first term will be remembered for more than his first 10 weeks in office. The upcoming budget roll-out, he says, will be a chance for all sides to come together and, if things go smoothly, cobble together a plan for solvency. Moving early on the budget-repair bill, he adds, enabled him to frame the fiscal debate on his terms.

“I spoke with many other governors,” Walker says. “They all told me that you have most political capital in the very early days of your tenure. Political capital is not something you can store — you only get more of it if you use it.”

So he did. “In my first day in office, I called a special session on jobs,” Walker recalls. “The next morning, we introduced a whole stack of bills. We have gotten nearly everything we asked for through the legislature in the first month and a half, from tort reform to targeted tax cuts.”

When it came time to tackle the budget, “I didn’t want to be like nearly every other state out there,” he explains. “We are cutting more than a billion from schools and local governments, but we are not passing it on to them and having them make up the ground through massive layoffs or massive property-tax increases. At the same time, we are giving them the tools to make up for the cuts with reasonable contributions [from public workers].”

As we part, Walker notes, in his softly nasal Wisconsin accent, that we will probably be having a similar conversation again soon. President Obama, among others, may try to make what he did in Wisconsin a national issue in the next election cycle, he says. If they do, Walker may show a little Chris Christie flair. “If they are going to come out and misrepresent what is happening here, and try to lead people astray, I will, without a doubt, come out and defend our home turf.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

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