The voters of Wisconsin booted Scott Walker out of the governorship in 2018. They rejected the man and his ideas on an election night that saw every statewide candidate that Republican governor endorsed go down in defeat.
There were many factors that contributed to the Walker’s defeat, including the memory of his breathtakingly unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But for many Wisconsinites it simply came down to a reality made clear by the passage of time: Walker’s austerity agenda had slowed, rather than hastened, the recovery of Wisconsin following the financial meltdown of 2008.
Unfortunately, Walker learned no lessons from his defeat. So now he’s back, peddling the worst advice any Republican has offered since President Donald Trump reviewed a report that cleaning with commonly available disinfectants kills the coronavirus and declared, “I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”
In an op-ed published by The New York Times last week, Walker rages against the idea of providing federal support for states that have mounted a necessary response to the coronavirus pandemic and the mass unemployment that has extended from it. Writing under the blunt headline, “Don’t Bail Out the States,” the former governor has injected an appeal for brutal austerity into the public policy debate.
Walker’s intervention comes at a time when state finances have been rocked by a collapse in revenues and a spike in demands for health care services, unemployment insurance payments, and aid to small businesses. A fresh NBC survey of state revenue officials finds that “the coronavirus pandemic will cost states hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue in the upcoming fiscal year” and warns, “with most states starting their new fiscal year early this summer, the projections in many cases will serve as the basis for severe budget cuts states may have to make if massive federal government aid doesn’t come soon.” Democrats in the House voted May 15 for a stimulus plan that includes $1 trillion in vital funding for state, local, and tribal governments. But the Trump administration and its congressional allies have been resistant — with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell going so far as to say, “I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route.”
Walker, who has emerged as a leading advocate for the “balanced budget” gimmickry long supported by the right-wing billionaires who financed his campaigns, is actually proposing a more heartless, and destructive, scheme than McConnell. The Wisconsinite wants to leverage the crisis to force states to slash services at precisely the point when they are most needed.
“Over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past six weeks. That is roughly 20% of the labor force. And that number is likely to grow larger as most states are ill equipped to handle the onslaught of the newly unemployed,” writes the former governor, who made his name by attacking the unions representing nurses, teachers, librarians and other public employees, while slashing funding for public education and public services.
True to form, Walker grumbles that “many state government employees are still receiving paychecks” and complains, “to make matters worse, many state leaders now demand a bailout by the federal government — the American taxpayer. This should not happen. States already raise taxes on their residents.”
For the states that cannot get more tax dollars from residents who are out of work, and from small businesses that are struggling to survive, Walker proposes the cruelest austerity. Arguing that “a federal bailout would stop state governments from enacting meaningful reforms,” he celebrates the “reforms” he enacted after taking office in 2011. But Walker’s attacks on public employees and their unions, on public education and public services — and his rejection of federal money for necessities like rural broadband services, as well as federal health exchange funding and the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion — created what even Trump described as “a mess.”
“Wisconsin’s doing terribly,” Trump told Republicans in 2015. “First of all, it’s in turmoil, the roads are a disaster … the schools are a disaster, and they’re fighting like crazy because there’s no money for the schools, the hospitals and education is a disaster.” In July of that year, Trump tweeted: “When people find out how bad a job Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin, they won’t be voting for him. Massive deficit, bad jobs forecast, a mess.”
Trump doesn’t get much right. But he was right about Walker in 2015. The governor’s austerity agenda weakened Wisconsin — to such an extent that a 2018 Economic Policy Institute study of how Walker’s Wisconsin compared with neighboring Minnesota, which rejected austerity and invested in infrastructure, health care, and education, revealed that “outcomes for workers and families over the course of the last seven years have been markedly better in Minnesota than in Wisconsin.” The EPI study concluded that “the progress achieved in Minnesota over the past seven years is undeniable, and that progress has the fingerprints of good state policy all over it. The good news for Wisconsin is that achieving similar progress for Badger State workers and families is possible — but it will take a different policy agenda from the one the state has pursued for the past seven years.”
A few months after that report came out, Wisconsin voters rejected Walker's bid for another term.
The proponents of austerity do not fade away, however. They just circle back to propose even greater, and even more dangerous, failures.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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