Gov. Scott Walker’s third biennial budget accelerates his generational shift in state government, though critics, including some Republicans, say it serves his presidential ambitions as much as the future of the state.
“I characterize the Walker administration to being akin to the progressive era of the early 20th century,” said UW-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim. “We haven’t had this kind of six-year period where we’ve had a shift in the philosophy and direction of the government since that time.”
Former state Sen. Mike Ellis, a Neenah Republican who retired last year after 45 years in the Legislature, said Walker’s $68 billion 2015-17 spending plan presents “significant major changes to what you and I traditionally know state government to be.”
He highlighted three proposals that “dramatically change the traditionalism of state government.” They are: Spinning off the University of Wisconsin System in exchange for historic funding cuts, expanding access to private voucher and independent charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools and stripping citizens of oversight of the Department of Natural Resources board.
“Republicans have to ask themselves this question: If (former Democratic Gov.) Jim Doyle was doing away with the powers of the DNR board and giving it to Jim Doyle, would they think that’s a good idea?” Ellis said.
Individually, many of the proposals don’t have the kind of “go big and go bold” sweep of Walker’s signature Act 10 law, which all but ended public sector collective bargaining and catapulted him onto the national stage.
But taken together they represent a reshaping of Wisconsin from a progressive-leaning state to a conservative-leaning state, said former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican from Richland Center who retired last year and at times clashed with Walker and his own party.
Many of the ideas — no tax increases, fewer government agencies, business deregulation, drug-testing public benefit recipients, and tightening government control in key areas at the expense of local or citizen control — play to the ideological views of national tea party conservatives whom Walker is already courting in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Schultz said.
“This is the most unusual state budget I’ve seen in my 49 years of looking at politics,” Schultz said. “It is absolutely a blueprint for how to win the presidency.”
As an example, Schultz said, the proposal cuts a local government property insurance program run through the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, which could end up costing smaller municipalities more to obtain the same coverage.
“This is about messaging, not about results,” Schultz said.
Building on previous plans
The budget proposals aren’t as groundbreaking as the Kellett Commission reforms of the late 1960s under Republican Gov. Warren Knowles, or the welfare and education reforms in the 1990s under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
Berry described the budget as “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” because many of the proposals expand on existing ideas that were started in previous budgets, like the Milwaukee voucher program, or were proposed and rejected by the Legislature, such as stripping authority from the citizen board that oversees the Department of Natural Resources.
Paper industry executive Bill Kellett’s work in the late 1960s transformed state government from 90 state agencies with a slew of citizen commissions into 14 Cabinet departments, 14 independent agencies and four constitutional offices.
The idea was to streamline and modernize a state government that had been developed during the Progressive Era a half-century earlier. Kellett separately led a commission that laid the groundwork for merger of the old Wisconsin State University System with the University of Wisconsin.
Thompson, who was elected four times between 1986 and 2001, when he became U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, enacted major initiatives, such as the first modern private school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 and the Wisconsin Works welfare reform in 1996. He also created the Department of Corrections, made the DNR head a Cabinet-level position and committed the state to funding two-thirds of K-12 education. His proposal to create a Cabinet-level education department was rejected by the state Supreme Court.
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Heim agreed Walker’s budget proposal may be more evolutionary given that it builds on many of Thompson’s ideas, but when considering all three budgets Walker has proposed going back to Act 10, which was part of a separate measure to close a $3.6 billion budget gap, the governor’s tenure takes a more “revolutionary” turn to the ideological right.
Jon Peacock, director of the liberal Wisconsin Budget Project since 1999 and before that a legislative aide for 19 years, said several items in the budget mark a “huge acceleration,” like an asteroid triggering a new geologic era.
“The change to the financing and whole nature of the university system is as dramatic a change as I can think of in any budget,” Peacock said.
“It would have huge consequences for the quality of our higher education system for decades to come.”
University leaders have championed the proposal that would bring them more autonomy in setting tuition, construction and human resources. But they have said a proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System is too much for the System to bear.
Bill Kraus, chairman of Common Cause Wisconsin who worked for Republican governors Knowles and Lee Dreyfus, called Walker’s proposal “anarchistic.”
“You’re seeing what an anti-tax, anti-government budget looks like. It hasn’t been anything that Wisconsin has seen in my lifetime,” Kraus said.
“The question is whether it represents what Wisconsin really wants or will it go away when Scott Walker goes away.”
Not the ‘Wisconsin Idea’
John Torinus, a retired West Bend business executive who serves on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s business lobby, said Walker’s budgets include “whopping big monumental shifts in public policy,” but unlike previous governors like Thompson who formed commissions to study problems and come up with solutions with public buy-in, the ideas are developed quietly within the governor’s office.
“They are not using the Wisconsin Idea — pulling together their best and brightest,” Torinus said. “We’re doing it the other way around now. … They come up with (the ideas), almost in a cloister, drop them in a budget, then the Legislature has to figure out how to sort it out.”
Steve Baas, vice president of government affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said “this budget struggles for the one shiny object to define it,” like the tax cuts in the previous budget and Act 10 in Walker’s first term.
“I wouldn’t say this is the biggest or boldest we’ve ever seen,” Baas said. “But it deals in the realm of the possible. It is tough to make some of these massive changes that some past budgets have made without some financial lubricant there to ease the pain. He’s making changes where he can given the fiscal constraints he’s got.”
Democrats have decried the state’s current fiscal situation as a creation of Walker’s making and with his eye fixed on running for national office.
Walker’s budget had to close a more than $2 billion shortfall between agency budget requests and projected revenue.
Walker has cut some $2 billion in taxes over his first term, including a package of tax changes a year ago totaling more than $800 million that were premised on a $912 million projected surplus.
The state is on pace to realize less than half of that amount in tax revenues through June 30. New revenue estimates due out in May could help close the budget gap, but Walker’s administration has already pushed $108 million in debt repayments into the future.