The throng of angry protesters rushed into the state Assembly, filling every corner of the chamber and stopping lawmakers from moving forward with a piece of controversial legislation.
The crowd was angry. Police were tense. The Legislature was divided.
This act of civil disobedience didn’t occur in the past month. It took place more than 40 years ago — the last time Wisconsin faced a budget similar to the one it faces now.
In 1969, Milwaukee activist the Rev. James Groppi organized and led the “Welfare Mothers’ March on Madison.” That day a group of roughly 1,000 people — angry over proposed cuts to welfare — seized control of the Assembly and held it for 11 hours.
The budget under debate that year was written by a moderate Republican governor and tweaked by a conservative Legislature. At the time, it was considered by many to be Wisconsin’s most ideologically Republican budget ever.
That was until earlier this month, when Gov. Scott Walker introduced his first budget — a spending plan that seems to uniformly favor Republican pets such as school vouchers, transportation and tax cuts while targeting nearly every Democratic sacred cow.
Walker’s proposal, aimed at eliminating the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall, would cut more than $1 billion from education, knock more than 50,000 people off BadgerCare, roll back recycling and water purity requirements, and cut aid to the poor.
Supporters say it is the first honest budget in a generation, since any real reform requires serious cuts to entitlements and education. Critics say Walker is turning Wisconsin into a laboratory for the GOP.
“It is literally every single bad conservative idea of the last 20 years housed in a single budget document,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political science professor who served for 14 years as a Democrat in the state Legislature, said Walker’s budget leaves little doubt as to his Republican bona fides.
“The governor comes across as a moderate, but as this budget shows, he is very, very conservative,” he said.
‘Reform’ or ‘Republican’?
Walker’s budget includes $28.7 billion in state funding, a 1.4 percent increase over the previous two-year spending plan. But the governor slashes the perennial imbalance between revenue and spending — known as the structural deficit — some 90 percent by 2013, from $2.5 billion to $250 million.
“It’s the first budget I can remember that isn’t full of a lot of funny money,” said Jim Klauser, GOP operative and former Department of Administration secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. “The governor doesn’t have a lot of choices, really. You cut, or you raise taxes.”
When asked about his budget, which critics describe as unabashedly “Republican,” Walker raised his eyebrows, half-amused.
“Maybe it’s unusual, here and in Washington, but it’s a budget filled with my campaign promises,” he said. “These are things I ran on.”
Walker said his budget was more “reform” than “Republican.”
“We’ve had the last eight budgets, including some from Republicans, that have had some massive structural deficits,” Walker said. “(The problem has) been building for years.”
Kicking the can
A 2009 report from the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute found that between 2001 and 2008, the state spent more than it collected and used nearly $2.4 billion from one-time sources such as the state’s tobacco company payout, the transportation fund, and funds meant to help the environment and injured medical patients.
By 2009, then-Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle faced the state’s biggest shortfall ever, at $5.7 billion. Doyle proposed addressing the problem by using $2.1 billion in federal stimulus money and raising $1.4 billion more through new or higher taxes.
That allowed Doyle to protect Democratic favorites such as education and BadgerCare. Walker, for better or worse, takes a different approach.
“The governor has given us a fiscally prudent budget that reflects his political philosophy,” said Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park and a former administration secretary under Thompson.
Bugher said the governor has rightly targeted the “Big Five” of state budgeting: schools, Medicaid, local aid, corrections and the University of Wisconsin System. “If you want to reform things, you start there,” he said.
But Walker’s critics say the governor is using a cleaver when a scalpel would do.
And they say his blade seems to carry an ideological bent.
Along with his big-ticket items, Walker wants to cut legal services for the homeless, repeal environmental mandates, eliminate child care for state workers, reduce tax cuts for poor families, eliminate food stamps for migrant workers and end requirements that insurance provide coverage for contraceptives.
Cutting these items saves relatively little money, prompting critics to accuse the governor of using his two-year spending plan to slide in a cultural agenda.
“It is the most right-wing budget I have ever seen,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. “For God’s sake, we are not talking about abortion. We are talking basic contraceptives. That is extreme.”
Walker contends his budget shows a determination to cut spending. But as with any spending plan, the proposal has winners and losers. It would expand the state’s school voucher program to students in higher income levels but restrict eligibility in state-subsidized health care plans to the poorest of the poor. It would scale back some mandates on local government but impose one of the toughest mandates possible — limiting the ability of cities and counties to raise taxes to make up for cuts in state aid.
The governor said an earlier budget repair bill — currently held up by a legal challenge — will help local governments cover that gap by imposing higher insurance and pension contributions on public workers. But critics question whether Walker is painting too rosy a picture. They say the governor is against mandates only for laws he doesn’t like.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said of the bill: “I can’t imagine Tommy Thompson or Scott McCallum putting out a budget like that.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said there will be a lot of debate on the floors of the Senate and the Assembly about which parts of the budget are fiscal and which are policy — something that is traditionally stripped from budget bills.
“Governors always try to push the envelope in their budgets,” he said. “I am sure there will be some push back. That’s the way the process works.”