Don’t Expect Walker to Back Down on Train Promise

Shhh. Don’t tell my son but we are buying him a train set for Christmas. We are going to build it in the basement and he can pretend he is riding the train from Chicago to Minneapolis all he wants.

If my son asks if he can ride a real train to Minneapolis, we’ll tell him the truth. “Sure you can. You just can’t stop in Madison.”

“What’s in Madison?” he will ask.

What is in Madison? Unfortunately, just some people who still do not get it. Governor-elect Scott Walker is not going to allow the supposedly “high-speed” train line to be built between Milwaukee and Madison. Perhaps they should buy model train sets to console themselves.

Let’s understand how we got to this point. The plan is for a regional high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis as part of a larger Midwest high-speed rail network. As part of the unpopular federal stimulus law, President Barack Obama committed $8 billion for high-speed rail nationally. Wisconsin’s “share” of the federal money is $810 million to be used to fund the Milwaukee to Madison leg of the system.

Nobody is sure what Wisconsin’s share of the cost will really be. The estimated cost of running the train from Milwaukee to Madison is $7.5 million annually. Train supporters are hoping the federal government will subsidize the train operations similar in amount to the subsidy for the existing train line from Chicago to Milwaukee.

However, no commitment by the federal government has been made for such a subsidy, and given the changes in the makeup of Congress, such money is unlikely to be forthcoming. The incoming chairman of the Transportation Committee in the House of Representatives has already announced his intention to review all high-speed rail projects. Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan takes over as Chairman of the budget committee, and he has already joined with Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and Congressman Tom Petri to sponsor a bill to allow states to send back to Washington to pay down the debt. Congressman Jerry Lewis, the current ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, has authored the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescissions Act to rescind any uncommitted stimulus money (mostly high-speed rail funding). At the top of the congressional ladder is the next Speaker of the House John Boehner who comes from Ohio where the new Republican governor was also elected on a campaign promise to kill the high-speed rail project in his state.

The federal government certainly is not in any position to be handing out more money to fund high-speed rail. The national debt will reach $13.6 trillion this year, 93% of the gross domestic product. The federal deficit is now over $1 trillion, forcing President Obama to propose freezing federal workers’ pay. Federal spending as a percentage of GNP has jumped to 25.55%, up from 20.65% in 2008.

As loan shark Herman Rabkin would say in the Sopranos, the federal government has no wiggle room.

Given the clamor for Walker to abandon his campaign promise, it is hard to remember how much Walker made the train an issue during his campaign. When President Obama visited Milwaukee to campaign for Walker’s opponent Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker held a rally opposing the train that gained national attention. Walker ran television ads linking Barrett to the unpopular federal stimulus law by highlighting Barrett’s support for the high-speed train. Walker even included stopping the train in his stump campaign speech.

Wisconsin voters responded because they understand the train is a luxury Wisconsin can’t afford. The $810 million that so many are lamenting may go to Illinois or New York is not a gift – it’s merely a down payment on a bill the federal government is trying to get Wisconsin to pay.

If Walker were to back down on his promise to kill the train, it would sever Walker from the support from Tea Party activists, the conservative base of his own party, and independents. A loss of credibility on this issue would make it harder for Walker to call for support for other needed spending and tax reform in Madison as he prepares to deal with a $3 billion structural deficit.

It is hard to imagine why the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal would share the same sentiment as the pro-train rallies and wish Walker would flip-flop on the issue. Surely the editors understand the motives of the rally organizers. Their goal is to try to de-rail the Walker reform agenda by de-coupling Walker from his base of support. As if they were abandoning any pretense of objectivity, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has even created a Walker Watch to catch any broken promises – even as the editorial page urges Walker to break his promises. You would think the editors of both newspapers would be happy that a politician is as good as his word.

All Walker would accomplish by caving in on the train issue is appeasing those who would never vote for him in the first place. When Republican businessman Bob Lien spoke in front of one rally in support of the trains, he was roundly booed for mentioning he voted for Walker– not a sign that all will be forgiven if Walker flip-flopped.

Walker has been through this before. Shortly after he became the Milwaukee County Executive, the county was going to build the Blue Shirt art project at the airport’s new parking structure. Prior to Walker taking office, the only debate over this kind of project would have been the shade of the blue. After Walker took office, he promised to kill the Blue Shirt.

His critics said Walker couldn’t stop it, citing the contracts that were signed and the advanced stage of the project. They were wrong.

They are about to be wrong again.

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute