MacIver News Service | Dec. 3, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON – As the crowds swelled inside and outside the state Capitol and the protesters sprayed Republicans with spit, insults, and hatred, Gov. Scott Walker could be forgiven for having a moment of pause, for asking himself if it was all worth it.
The public sector unions were calling for Walker’s political head. Some wanted more. They threatened his job, his life, his family. All because the newly elected Republican governor was willing to challenge the status quo, to find a long-term fix to a state budget that had for so long careened from crisis to crisis, to restore power to a long-forgotten constituency: Wisconsin taxpayers.
As the battle over Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill,” commonly known as Act 10, intensified in the late winter and early spring of 2011, some Republicans saw retreat as the only option.
Walker, according to those who know him best, never considered backing down — even as Democrats and their Big Labor allies began organizing a political recall campaign.
Walker set the tone and the agenda for sweeping conservative reforms over arguably the two most active terms in Badger State history and steeled the courage of the Republican lawmakers who swept into office in 2010’s red wave.
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) said he didn’t quite know what to expect from Walker, a long-time politician/administrator and preacher’s son, after the 2010 general election. What he found almost immediately was a governor with a vision for reform and a firmness rare in political leadership.
“He stood up right off the bat in those first days of office handing us a Herculean task to solve the budget problem, and he did it with just this type of courage and messaging that we weren’t going to back down,” Kooyenga recalled.
The “tone at the top,” what an opinion writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel once derisively described as Walker’s “reptilian calm,” was precisely what the Republican Revolution needed to lead a sustained campaign of conservative reforms. The governor’s “laser-like focus” on fixing a broken state budget and healing an anemic state economy would make him plenty of enemies, but it would pay huge dividends for taxpayers over Walker’s tenure in office.
Thanks to a Republican-controlled Legislature, Walker and conservatives would get used to policy victories, many of which were replicated in states around the nation.
Walker’s string of stunning successes effectively ended earlier this month, when Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of education, narrowly defeated the two-term governor at the polls. Walker and fellow Republicans, however, expect to squeeze out a few more victories during an extraordinary — albeit lame duck — session scheduled for this week.
Walker’s signature success, Act 10, is, for many, the defining win of his two terms. But it was just the beginning of a long list of limited-government reforms the likes of which Wisconsin had never seen.
Lieutenant Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch was engaged in a fight for her life as she stepped into the fight of her political life. Diagnosed with colon cancer as she joined the Walker ticket in 2010, Kleefisch underwent chemotherapy amid the heated Act 10 battles of 2011. She said she will never forget the vitriol of many of the protesters, much of it aimed at the governor and top Republicans — and at their families.
“I had two little kids at the time,” she said. “The protesters were just merciless to them.”
There was much at stake. Big Labor and its friends in the Democratic Party had much to lose.
Act 10, loathed by liberals for the power it took from public sector unions, holds wage increases for Wisconsin government employees to the rate of inflation and requires them to contribute more — or something — to their taxpayer-funded health insurance plans and pensions. More so, it requires the unions to hold annual recertification votes and frees public employees from compulsory union dues. Taking power away from the once all-powerful unions would cost Big Labor members and money — lots of money. (The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, lost nearly 54 percent of its members between 2012 and 2017, according to the Education Intelligence Agency.)
As Walker noted in his 2013 memoir of the times, “Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” Wisconsin was the diminished labor movement’s line in the sand. The Badger State was the birthplace of public sector unions in the 1930s, and in 1959 it became the first state to allow collective bargaining for government employees.
“If the union bosses could not stop collective bargaining reform in the state where collective bargaining began, they had little hope of stopping it anywhere,” Walker wrote in the book, a national introduction for his brief presidential campaign a couple years later.
The union bosses could not stop collective bargaining reform, but they certainly tried. Their legislative allies in the state Senate fled the state to try to delay a vote on Act 10. That effort failed. Big Labor helped Democrats finance an expensive recall campaign against Walker, Kleefisch and six Republican state senators. Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt. And despite seemingly endless court challenges and Wisconsin’s version of “the resistance,” Act 10 survived.
Walker administration insider Eric Schutt said the times called for big ideas, bold solutions, and decisiveness.
“It was almost one of those too-big-to-fail-moments. There weren’t a lot of other choices out there in terms of what you needed to do when the rest of the economy was where it was at.” Schutt served as Walker’s chief of staff at the end of the governor’s first term and moved back into the post earlier this year.
Eric Bott, director of Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and a legislative assistant during the Act 10 battles, said Walker’s legacy in part is his lasting national impact on the worker’s right to choose. From the dismantling of compulsory union membership in the public sector to signing the legislation that made Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state, Bott said the governor drove a good deal of the change.
“We are seeing an increase in worker freedom around the country that started here in Wisconsin,” Bott said, pointing to subsequent right-to-work laws in Michigan, Missouri, and Kentucky following the passage of Act 10.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Walker changed Wisconsin and the world.
“During his two terms as governor, Walker freed hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin public sector workers from mandatory union dues, enacted billions in tax relief, and instituted a number of structural reforms that will benefit the state moving forward,” Norquist wrote in an email to MacIver News Service.
Taxpayers have arguably been the biggest beneficiaries of the collective bargaining reforms, which gave local governments the “tools” to offset funding cuts that helped right a $3.6 billion budget shortfall that the Walker administration faced in early 2011. Democrats and union members raged that Act 10 robbed public employees to pay for budget deficits, but the reforms finally dealt with the structural fiscal problems the state perpetually faced: Ever-increasing spending commitments that outstripped the taxpayers’ ability to pay.
Time would prove wrong the liberals who used dire predictions about Act 10 to fuel their political recall campaigns. The law saved Wisconsin taxpayers more than $5 billion in its first five years alone, according to an analysis by the MacIver Institute. Wisconsin school districts have saved more than $3.2 billion in benefits costs, thanks to employee contributions and, in large part, to greater competition in the health insurance marketplace. Wisconsin schools pumped those savings back into education, rewarding exemplary teachers, reducing class sizes by hiring additional educators, and expanding or improving other initiatives and programs.
“It’s so easy as we sit here today to forget what condition Wisconsin was in when Gov. Scott Walker was taking the reins,” said Mike Huebsch, former legislator and Department of Administration secretary in Walker’s first term. “I had just come out of the Legislature. We were struggling to figure out how to balance the budget and bring down high unemployment and how Wisconsin was going to get back on its feet.”
“It’s easy to forget the dire straits we and most of the nation were in at that time,” added Huebsch, a member of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
Fixing a hole
The state’s unemployment rate peaked at 9.3 percent in early 2010, post-Great Recession and in the final year of Democrat Jim Doyle’s final term. Wisconsin’s famed manufacturing sector was bleeding jobs. State government faced massive layoffs. And the state was facing a $234 million repayment of the medical malpractice claims fund that Doyle had unlawfully raided a few years before.
Doyle, like so many politicians, campaigned on a pledge to hold the line on taxes.
“We should not, we must not, and I will not raise taxes,” he said in his State of the State address in 2003.
Walker campaigned on the same message. Unlike Walker, Doyle broke his pledge in his last biennial budget, at the first sign of economic trouble. Doyle and the Democrat-led Legislature pushed through $2 billion in income tax increases. They also allowed local property tax hikes of $1.5 billion. Worse yet, the 2009-11 budget used $3.4 billion of one-time federal “stimulus” money, two-fifths of that on existing programs.
Much to the chagrin of partisan Democrats, the massive tax hikes didn’t fix the state budget problem. The deficit continued to grow. Ironically, Doyle campaigned against a $3.2 billion structural deficit in 2002. He left Walker with a bigger mess, a $3.6 billion deficit, in 2011.
Walker’s first budget focused on austerity. It didn’t come without pain, but it ultimately shored up Wisconsin’s troubled fiscal position for years to come — all without raising taxes.
In the first year alone, the administration trimmed state borrowing by 20 percent. The 2011-13 budget cut more than 1,000 government jobs, including 735 long-term vacancies. At the same time, the budget repair bill staved off massive government worker layoffs. The state ended that troubled first year not with a deficit but with a $300 million surplus.
Fixing the budget and cutting the state’s structural deficit caught credit raters’ attention. Moody’s upped the state’s long-term debt rating at Aa1, the highest rating in 45 years.
Last week, the state Department of Administration announced that the state is projected to take in an additional $2.1 billion in revenue over the next three fiscal years. While the mainstream media focused on bureaucratic concerns that new revenue is projected to fall $1.1 billion short of what state agencies have requested in their 2019-21 budget requests, state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) pointed out that the three-year projections are the best revenue estimates the state has seen since 2002.
“Governor Walker is leaving Wisconsin in much better fiscal shape than what he inherited. Thanks to our reforms, tax cuts and common sense budgeting, our state is expected to generate an additional $2.1 billion,” said Darling, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “There is no deficit. In fact, Wisconsin is projected to end the current budget with a $662 million surplus. Agency budget requests are just that — requests.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund — or Rainy Day Fund — stands at $320 million, 190 times larger than it was in 2010.
Walker and fiscal hawks in the Legislature defied what liberals have long claimed impossible. Getting government off the backs of taxpayers can spur the economy and substantially increase tax revenue.
Walker took a lot of heat from the left and the mainstream media for his initial campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs by the end of his first term. Yes, he missed the mark. The state’s private sector had added 213,000 jobs as of June.
Schutt, the governor’s chief of staff, said the pledge was not overly ambitious, but a “stretch goal” built on a promise of hard work by a leader committed to helping businesses grow.
“That was really the underlying message,” Schutt said. “As you look back over the last eight years, you really saw a pronounced focus.” Walker described it as a “laser-like focus.”
“When we first came in, there were no jobs. So the focus was on jobs and the economy, cutting taxes, holding the line on government, removing barriers for employers to create more jobs, creating a healthy economy that would allow the private market to thrive,” Schutt said.
It worked. While Democrats like to focus on Walker’s original pledge, what can’t be denied is where the Badger State came from and where it is today.
Walker and the Legislature faced an economic mess in January 2011. Doyle, the previous governor, presided over an economy that had shed nearly 134,000 jobs during his last term. Certainly the recession had something to say about the state’s economic malaise, but so did Doyle’s tax hikes and regulation-friendly policies.
Today, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is at the lowest level in history, holding at 3 percent or lower for a record-setting nine consecutive months as of October, the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This year the state’s jobless rate has fallen as low as 2.8 percent. More people are working in Wisconsin than anytime in the state’s history. Initial unemployment claims are at 30-year lows.
“By every single metric Wisconsin is in so much better shape after these eight years and it’s really because of the leadership and strength and will of Gov. Walker,” Huebsch said.
Walker definitely went big and bold, insisting that with a pro-business, pro-taxpayer approach to government, the Badger State’s economy could generate a quarter million new jobs. Business experts say that ambitious pursuit was precisely the right approach to take, although it has taken more time for the economy to feel the full impact of the Walker-era reforms.
As the economy improved, it was apparent that the administration’s focus would have to shift.
“In the beginning we were almost exclusively on economic development because our biggest challenge was trying to find enough jobs for the people,” Kleefisch said. “Today our biggest challenge is trying to find enough qualified people for the jobs.”
The governor upon taking office replaced the old crony state Commerce Department with the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. WEDC has had its warts over the years, but it has proven to be particularly nimble in employer retention and expansion.
Last year, WEDC posted a record year for economic development, with 59 companies from around Wisconsin and the world agreeing to locate or expand in the Badger State, according to the agency. The projects are expected to create or retain some 30,000 jobs and result in a capital investment of more than $11.6 billion.
Chief among the economic development projects is Foxconn Technology Group’s plan to build a $10 billion manufacturing campus in Racine County. The project, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, is pegged to create as many as 13,000 jobs at the Liquid Crystal Display plant and tens of thousands more spin-off positions. It’s a hefty development that comes with a hefty incentives package — about $3 billion in state tax incentives, and another $1 billion in local tax and infrastructure incentives. But the tax breaks are contingent on Foxconn creating jobs.
Foxconn is by far the biggest development deal on Walker’s watch, but the state has landed scores of business developments and expansions over the past eight years.
Haribo, the Bonn, Germany-based candy maker that invented the gummy bear, last year announced plans to build its first North American manufacturing plant in Kenosha County. When fully built out, the factory is expected to employ more than 1,600 workers.
Also in Kenosha County, Amazon’s massive fulfillment center and support services employ more than 4,000 people, and the retail Goliath is looking to expand its workforce by hundreds in southeast Wisconsin.
In western Wisconsin, convenience store chain Kwik Trip Inc. in 2017 announced a $309 million expansion project in La Crosse. The project is expected to create north of 300 jobs.
“We have changed the way site selectors look at Wisconsin. We have changed the way the international economic development community looks at Wisconsin,” the lieutenant governor said.
Chief Executive magazine has ranked Wisconsin a top 10 state to do business, up from the bottom 10 during the Doyle years.
Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business advocate, said he doesn’t think the business community “appreciates how monumental” Walker’s eight years in office have been.
“This state has been transformed in how business leaders, not just in Wisconsin but globally, look at Wisconsin,” Bauer said. “Scott Walker understands that we are competing against other states and countries for the most attractive place to conduct business. He has always understood that fundamentally.”
While the budget repair bill and the Capitol protests grabbed the spotlight, Walker and the Republicans led a flurry of significant limited-government reforms in the first 180 days of Walker’s first term.
“A lot of this got lost in the shuffle, but while the Capitol was under siege and tens of thousands of angry protesters were there threatening our lives, spitting on us, harassing us, trying to intimidate us into halting progress on collective bargaining reform, the Legislature didn’t quit working,” Bott said. “There was a multitude of very important reforms that were advanced in the first months of the Walker administration.”
The new governor acted immediately, on his first day in office signing an executive order creating a Commission on Waste, Fraud, and Abuse. After the big-government bloat of the previous eight years, Walker said a task force was needed to curb wasteful state spending.
“Right-sizing state government starts by identifying the areas where state government has not been a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” Walker said in a statement. “This commission is the first step in restoring the people’s trust in their government.”
In May 2011, Walker signed Wisconsin’s voter ID bill into law. The voter integrity measure, like so many other pieces of legislation passed by the GOP majority, endured a prolonged battle in the courts, but it has served as a check against voter fraud over the past several elections.
About the same time, Republicans passed a self-defense law, commonly known as the “castle doctrine” law, which allows use of deadly force against an individual who has unlawfully entered a home, vehicle or place of business. The property owner must have a reasonable belief that deadly force is necessary to stop imminent death or great bodily harm.
In June, Walker signed a bill making Wisconsin the 49th state to allow concealed carry weapons, with a permit.
Also in those action-packed 180 days, the Legislature expanded Wisconsin’s oldest school choice program in the 2011-12 state budget, dramatically increasing eligibility in Milwaukee, Racine and, ultimately, statewide.
Walker and the Republican-led Legislature can lay claim to delivering the largest tax cuts in state history. All told, tax relief is expected to approach $8.5 billion. More than half of that came in the form of income and franchise tax reduction, another $3.56 billion in property tax cuts.
More so, in those first sweeping days of 2011, the Legislature on a party-line vote passed the manufacturing and agriculture tax credit, dramatically reducing personal and corporate taxes on Wisconsin’s oldest industries, manufacturing and farming. For a manufacturing sector that had been decimated over the last few decades, the tax credit was a huge victory. And it was a big win for Wisconsin’s economy. More than 42,000 jobs were created between 2013 and 2016 because of the credit, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison report.
Gov.-elect Tony Evers and fellow Democrats have blasted the credit, insisting it is a corporate giveaway. But the same study shows 88 percent of tax credit recipients in 2017 were small businesses with incomes of less than $1 million.
“This tax credit has been crucial to Wisconsin’s growing economy,” Scott Manley, senior vice president of Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce said in a statement earlier this year.
Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted business tax reforms projected to save Wisconsin businesses more than $130 million per year when fully implemented.
Walker kept his pledge that state property taxes would be lower than when he first took office. Property taxes, as a percentage of personal income, are at the lowest level since the end of World War II, according to administration records.
For the first time in a long time, the state of Wisconsin got rid of a tax. In September 2017, Walker signed a Republican-led bill eliminating the Forestry Mill Tax, otherwise known as the state property tax. While axing the tax saved Wisconsin taxpayers $85 million, a modest sum when talking about the billions of dollars casually tossed about every day in Madison, it serves as an example that lawmakers can do more than just create or increase taxes; they can, with a little courage, get rid of them.
By contrast, property taxes climbed substantially during the two terms of Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. The former governor signed off on nearly $900 million in total tax increases in the 2007-09 budget, and a $1.1 billion package of tax hikes in his final budget.
Walker’s final budget also included the scrapping of the state’s Alternative Minimum Tax for individual income tax purposes. The “Wealth Tax,” as it is known, has increasingly hit middle income earners. Wisconsin was one of just a handful of states with the AMT. The AMT, a kind of second income tax, adds normally tax-free money back into an individual’s adjusted gross income.
Huebsch said the litany of conservative reforms and Walker’s focus on changing state government’s relationship with business set the stage for soaring revenue, impressive surpluses, and the tax breaks that followed.
“Property taxes were a big issue. They were driving senior citizens out of their homes,” the former Administration secretary said. “These were the issues that drove us and made it clear we needed to make fundamental changes.”
Walker and legislative tax cutters saved businesses again through an omnibus tax relief package in the last budget authored by Kooyenga and Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green). One of the bills took a big bite out of Wisconsin’s antiquated and unfair personal property tax law. Small businesses have long had to pay local government a tax on the value of their equipment. The measure exempts non-manufacturing machinery, tools and patterns from the property tax, unburdening business by a combined $74.4 million over the course of the 2017-19 budget.
As Walker began his first term in January 2011, Wisconsin was viewed as the “California of the Midwest,” and not for its winter beach fun in the sun, AFP’s Bott said.
“In just about every regard we overregulated our industries in the state far beyond what the federal government required, and far beyond what any of our neighboring states did,” Bott said. “It cost us jobs. It cost us wage growth. It cost us benefits for our employees. And it meant that for a large segment of businesses in our economy they would never consider locating or expanding in Wisconsin.”
Walker and the GOP-led Legislature began working on changing that mentality immediately with a series of regulatory reforms. One of the first changes came with Act 21, described as a “quintessential regulatory reform.” It effectively ended state bureaucracy authority to write rules and regulations that affect laws without explicit and express authority from the Legislature.
“That was a sea change,” Bott said. “The regulatory community had long been hostile to business. Our bureaucrats did not want business here.”
Walker saw the dangers in unchecked bureaucrats. In 2017, he effectively handed back some executive branch power by endorsing the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act). It provides greater legislative oversight of the regulations adopted by state agencies. Any rule or regulation with an economic impact of more than $10 million requires legislative approval.
And it gives the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules more muscle. The committee is empowered to request a public hearing earlier in the rule-making process and call for an independent review of the proposed regulation’s economic impact.
Democrats insist the REINS Act will undermine regulations designed to protect the public. Sen. Devin LeMahieu, co-author of the bill, said it was long past time that state agencies with the power to create harmful regulations were reined in.
“The REINS Act improves transparency in the rule making process and gives the legislature more power to hold unelected bureaucrats accountable,” he said.
While liberals howled, Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature eased some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the nation, regulations that too often preempted business from growing or moving to the state. Conservatives eliminated the authority of local governments to enact stricter shoreline zoning regulations, a move aimed at protecting property rights. They opened the door for pipeline expansion, required state regulators to ease up on wetland restrictions when wetlands can be replaced in other locations, and relaxed regulations on high-capacity wells.
Last year, Walker signed into law a bill ending Wisconsin’s 20-year moratorium on sulfide mining for silver, gold, copper, zinc, and nickel. Democrats like state Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) bemoaned a bill they believe puts the health of constituents “at risk for the promise of jobs that may never come.” Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) argued that lifting the moratorium and easing some of the environmental requirements “invites back a multi-billion dollar industry with a long and proud history in Wisconsin.”
Unnecessary government is no better than unnecessary government red tape. The state’s Local Government Property Insurance Fund certainly fit that bill. Walker finally got his wish in his last budget when the Legislature approved the elimination of this relic insurance plan dating back to 1911. Local governments must now buy their property insurance like everybody outside of big government does, through the private market.
In another big hit to Big Labor and a significant victory for taxpayers, Walker signed legislation last year putting the final nail in the coffin of prevailing wage. The Great Depression-era relic tied wages on taxpayer-funded construction projects to inflated rates paid by unions. Conservatives repealed prevailing wage for local projects in the 2015-17 state budget, and sacked the inflated wage for state projects in the subsequent budget.
The limited-government reform allowed the market to set wage rates for public construction projects, saving taxpayers from well-documented cost overruns.
Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, Republican Tommy Thompson, is perhaps best know for his pioneering welfare reform initiative of the mid-1990s, Wisconsin Works, or W-2. Walker would make W-2.0 a cornerstone of his agenda.
He worked with Republicans in the Legislature on a suite of reforms, including adding work requirements for welfare programs, limiting benefits for families of children who are habitually truant, and setting a $25,000 liquid asset limit on FoodShare beneficiaries.
Earlier this year Walker called a special session of the Legislature to take up 10 bills, part of his “Wisconsin Works for Everyone” welfare reform initiative. All but one were approved by the Republican majority in the Legislature. A bill that would have required FoodShare Quest cards to have a photo ID of the recipient didn’t make the cut in the Assembly.
The reforms underscore Walker’s governing philosophy on limiting the ever-encroaching reach of government in the lives of individuals.
“We want to help those in need move from government dependence to true independence through the dignity of work,” Walker said in April, after signing the nine bills into law. “We believe welfare should be more like a trampoline and less like a hammock.”
Rejecting ‘free money’
His supporters say some of the more courageous leadership Walker showed was in rejecting so-called “free” federal money. That began even before he took the oath of office.
In 2010, Walker campaigned in part on saying no to $810 million in federal stimulus money to help pay for high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. Weeks after Walker won the election, the Obama administration took back its “gift” and divvied the money up between 13 other states “enthusiastic about the additional support…”
Walker called the high-speed rail network a product of “runaway government spending” that would have cost taxpayers in the long run.
“As I said along the campaign trail, we didn’t need and couldn’t afford the Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line,” then-Gov.-elect Walker said at the time.
Time proved Walker correct. President Obama’s rail stimulus has been a boondoggle of the worst kind, illustrated by California’s “bullet train to nowhere.” Massive cost overruns have pushed the baseline cost of the transportation monster to $77 billion, up 20 percent from two years ago. Experts say the cost could climb as high as $100 billion.
“It appears that they are finally bringing forth more realistic cost estimates and a more realistic schedule,” Stephen Levy, executive director and senior economist with the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a Menlo Park-based research group, told CNBC earlier this year. “The whole project remains in doubt as the costs increase and the funding gap increases.”
California voters are on the hook for $10 billion in bond money for the bloated transportation system.
Days before Walker began his first term, lefty political pundit Mordecai Lee told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the Republican governor-elect’s hard-line stance on the federal train money was “emblematic of what his governorship will be.”
“He will stick literally to his campaign promises come hell or high water,” the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor and former Democratic lawmaker said.
In his first term, Walker rejected federal promises of “free” money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, more widely known as Obamacare. Critics say the governor’s decision has cost the state and potential Medicaid recipients a fortune – somewhere in the vicinity of $700 million since 2014.
But like Obama’s trains program, the Medicaid aid comes with all kinds of strings attached, not the least of which is a requirement that states taking the cash will soon have to cover 10 percent of the federal government handout.
Instead, the Walker administration expanded BadgerCare (Wisconsin’s health insurance for the poor), covering everyone at or below the poverty line. The Medicaid expansion under Obamacare significantly extends income eligibility. Wisconsin boasts one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the nation. Walker expanded BadgerCare for people up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. And he ended what his predecessor started, waiting lists for eligible BadgerCare applicants. The conservative approach brought insurance to those most unable to afford health care premiums, in the pursuit of Walker’s ultimate goal: transitioning welfare recipients from government dependence to individual independence.
Liberals like to point to Wisconsin’s neighbor to the west as the glittering example of the Medicaid expansion. They forget that Minnesota took the federal money and paid dearly for it. Gopher State premiums headed into 2017 were expected to increase by a staggering 50-67 percent, as opposed to Wisconsin’s 16 percent hike. As a result, Minnesota was forced to come up with $300 million to bail out 123,000 struggling Minnesotans who did not qualify for federal Obamacare subsidies.
The bloodletting of Minnesota taxpayers didn’t stop there. The following year, the Minnesota legislature spent an additional $542 million to establish a reinsurance program to hold down costs. Wisconsin recently enacted a similar reinsurance program, but the cost to state taxpayers is expected to be a fraction of that, about $34 million. Premiums are expected go down an average of 3.5 percent thanks to the program, which garnered federal approval earlier this year. Walker administration officials are confident the bill can be paid for by finding savings in the state’s behemoth Medicaid program.
Health care reforms
Delivering affordable and accessible health care has been a constant battle for state government during the run of the faltering Obamacare era. The federal health care law has sent premiums soaring and has driven insurers out of the marketplace.
The Walker years have included a number of reforms to help stop the bleeding and deal with the cost curve that Obamacare could not bend. Among them, the reinsurance program aimed at stabilizing individual market cost increases. Walker set the groundwork for self-funded insurance for state government employees, a plan that could save tens of millions of dollars. The Legislature in the last budget session rejected Walker’s proposal.
The governor also has tied work to BadgerCare benefits, demanding recipients get a job or train for one in order to receive taxpayer-funded health care. The suite of reforms also requires nominal monthly co-pays for those on BadgerCare. The federal government has granted the state a waiver for the former. And BadgerCare benefits are limited to four years for anyone not meeting the work requirements in the federal waiver request.
When Walker described himself as the “education governor” on the campaign trail, the left chortled at the descriptor. Wasn’t he the same guy who took the ax to the ed budget in the dire days of 2011, they said. But the governor can lay claim to some significant successes on the education front.
Beyond working with the Legislature to expand the school voucher program statewide, the governor pushed for the removal of barriers to the Special Needs Scholarship Program and supported a budget provision creating the Office of Educational Opportunity, with the authority to directly authorize new charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee.
Walker championed more funding for choice programs, but his last budget also included the largest investment in K-12 education in Wisconsin history. He led the effort to reward excellence in teaching as opposed to the old seniority-based system, and he signed off on the creation of “lifetime licenses” for teachers who successfully complete six semesters.
All the while, Walker never lost sight of the taxpayer’s burden. He used his veto pen to scratch out an increase in local property tax funding for low-spending districts, saving taxpayers up to $23.2 million. And he vetoed the Legislature’s attempt to water down changes to a budget item that got rid of the runaway spending in the Energy Efficiency Exemption. The loophole allowed school districts to raise taxes for supposed energy efficiency projects without going to referendum.
After the Legislature’s famed CPA caucus discovered hundreds of millions of dollars in University of Wisconsin System reserves — described as a slush fund — Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature froze tuition. It has remained locked in place for six years, saving students and their parents thousands of dollars. Resident undergraduate students and their families paid 16.5 percent in increased tuition costs from 2009 to 2013, before the freeze was implemented, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
While a lot of politicians pay lip service to the ever-escalating cost of higher education but do nothing to actually fix the problem, Walker implemented a real solution. He froze tuition.
Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have had a very good working relationship. Without that partnership the list of conservative accomplishments would have been much shorter. But there were areas of deep divide, and none greater than transportation.
The governor has long been opposed to a gas tax increase unless there is a “net neutral or, ideally, a net reduction” in the overall tax burden. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has pushed for “revenue enhancements,” including a gas tax hike, to fund road construction. In the last budget session, it was a battle of wills, with Walker threatening to veto a tax increase. Despite intense pressure from a road builder lobby that stands to benefit immensely from more transportation revenue, Walker stood his ground and kept a gas tax hike and a vehicle registration fee increase out of the budget.
“Governor Walker has kept his word by proposing a reasonable transportation budget that sets the right priorities and doesn’t increase taxes or the registration fee. He has provided an option that prioritizes the taxpayers’ ability to pay over the demands of special interests for massive new levels of government spending,” state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) said in a statement during the budget debates.
Legacy of reform
To Wisconsin liberals, Scott Walker was the bogeyman — the fountainhead of their misery, their conspiracies, and their failures for the past eight years.
The Republican governor’s limited-government policies were so anathema to their big-government religion that progressives launched a recall movement, the birth of the left’s national resistance movement, against him. They hated him so much that they readily endorsed a secret, unconstitutional “John Doe” investigation — one of the darkest chapters in Wisconsin history — into Walker, his campaign, and many of the center-right organizations in the state.
But Walker and the conservative Legislature embraced the battle, and bested progressives at nearly every turn. Perhaps Matt Rothschild, executive director of the lefty Wisconsin Democracy Campaign unwittingly paid Walker the highest compliment at a recent Rock County Progressives discussion on the lessons learned from the November 2018 election.
Rothschild advised his fellow liberals to “bask in the victory,” because victories have come so infrequently for the Wisconsin left under the weight of “Scott Walkerism.”
“For eight years he was kicking progressives in the teeth,” he said. “I was wondering just how many times can we be kicked in the teeth.”
Bauer, of WMC, predicts Walker will go down in history as one of the two most consequential governors Wisconsin has elected. “Fighting Bob” La Follette made his legacy a century before by leading the progressive revolution. Walker led the Republican revolution that “systematically dismantled many of the failed progressive experiments” La Follette sparked, Bauer said.
Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform, said Walker’s legacy of conservative leadership extends beyond the boundaries of the Badger State.
“The reforms approved in Wisconsin during the Walker administration, in addition to benefitting Wisconsin, helped the nation by emboldening governors and lawmakers in other states to take on government sector unions, the most powerful force in American politics, and enact similarly bold reforms.”
Just days after his defeat to Evers, Walker reflected on his tenure. He said he will be remembered as a reformer.
“I’m particularly proud that, because of our reforms, that enabled the people — not the government — to create more jobs, more opportunities and higher wages in this state,” Walker said.
He paused, and considered that he may have been too successful on that score.
“We’ve been such a reformer I may have reformed myself out of a job,” the governor said.
Chris Rochester contributed.