The class of Republican governors and state legislators elected in 2010 are fully invested in fundamental reforms at the state level. These Republican officeholders are moving aggressively to reform governmental institutions, tax policy and large state programs such as education and Medicaid. In effect, they’re finally bringing the states into the 21st century.
By any reckoning, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a leader in this class of reformers. He was a successful county executive in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County, winning re-election in 2008 with nearly 60 percent of the vote even as Barack Obama was carrying the county handily. He was elected governor last year with a dual charge to reform a bloated, inefficient state government and establish a pro-business environment to create long-term private-sector jobs.
He has begun to deliver on those promises. He has already reformed the state agency charged with bringing jobs to the state by substantially increasing participation of the private sector and job creators. He held the line on taxes and balanced a budget that was deeply in the red. A state that had lost more than 150,000 jobs from 2007 to 2010 has seen a net increase in private sector jobs in 2011, Mr. Walker’s first year in office.
By far, however, his most notable achievement was reforming benefit and bargaining rights for state workers in Wisconsin. Under his Budget Repair Bill, state workers are required to pay approximately 12 percent of the cost of their health care premiums and provide roughly 6 percent of salary toward their annual pension payment, contributions well in line with those of private-sector workers. State workers are also limited to bargaining collectively for wages, but not for so-called “work rules.” Mr. Walker believes this creates much needed flexibility for local school boards and governments to manage their programs more effectively and efficiently. As a result, the state budget is in balance for the foreseeable future without a tax increase and without any layoffs of state workers.
The public employee unions reacted with fury, tying up the state capitol for months and forcing a series of recall elections against Republican state senators. Although two senators were recalled, the GOP won enough contests to maintain control of the State Senate.
Mr. Walker is now facing a recall himself, probably this spring, but he faces the prospect with confidence. He believes that his reforms are operating exactly as advertised and that state and local resources are being allocated far more efficiently. “We are going to be making the case aggressively all throughout Wisconsin that the law is good for everyone, including public employees,” he says.
Mr. Walker says that one of his motivations for the reform law was a situation in Milwaukee County where a teacher who had won multiple awards was laid off because under the union contract, she lacked seniority. “At a time when our schools are struggling to provide a quality education to our children, it makes no sense that antiquated work rules should require that a first-rate teacher be fired for no reason other than seniority.” He also cites savings to local school districts around the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars where teachers’ health insurance policies are now submitted for competitive bidding rather than districts being required to buy the policies run by the teachers’ unions.
Since Mr. Walker’s legislation also ended the practice of the state collecting compulsory union dues, the recall effort against him is being funded by unions outside of Wisconsin. “You have the effort against me being funded almost entirely by special interests outside the state,” he notes. “I’m going to concentrate doing my best for the citizens of Wisconsin and not be distracted by political games.”
Why is he so confident he will be successful? “We have enacted badly needed reforms that will bring our budget under control, make us more competitive with other states, and protect the jobs of state workers by not requiring layoffs. Why would we want to go backward to the failed policies of the past?”
Mr. Walker’s supporters have already developed a website to tell his side of the story on how his reforms are working: scottwalker.org.
The stakes for the recall election are high. A successful recall would put public unions firmly in control in Wisconsin, reopening the budget debate, and probably forcing tax hikes and layoffs of union members. A Walker victory would preserve these hard-won reforms, keep the state on a sound financial footing and rationalize the delivery of public services in Wisconsin.
Scott Walker is running point and that’s exactly how he likes it.
Frank Donatelli is chairman of GOPAC.