Scott Walker, the ul­ti­mate changeling

The gover­nor changes his ap­proach ev­ery two to four years. This time, will he own up to his mod­er­ate ways?

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY MATT HRODEY

AUSTIN, TEXAS, is about 1,500 miles from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., but on Nov. 15, that was barely far enough. The in­flu­en­tial Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion was hold­ing its an­nual con­fer­ence at the JW Mar­riott ho­tel down­town, a tall, glassy struc­ture that takes up the bet­ter part of a city block. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, present only in spirit, was never far from the minds of those GOP gov­er­nors, es­pe­cially the 26 who face

re-elec­tion cam­paigns in 2018 – in­clud­ing Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker.

Dur­ing a closed-door meet­ing, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence as­sured the gov­er­nors the White House stood ready to go to bat for them in 2018. Pence, the for­mer gover­nor of In­di­ana, knew as well as they did that the year could turn into a coun­try­wide, mid-term back­lash against Trump and the GOP. As such, few wanted his help. The New York Times, which spoke to some­one who was also in the room, re­ported that Walker and Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan “hoped the ad­min­is­tra­tion would prove col­lab­o­ra­tive and re­spect the wishes of gov­er­nors who want Mr. Trump to stay away.” And the tart words for Trump only in­creased af­ter Pence flew back to Wash­ing­ton.

Few gov­er­nors are un­der more pres­sure than Walker this cy­cle as he re­cov­ers from a failed pres­i­den­tial run and gauges the pub­lic’s ap­petite for his re­put­edly hard-nosed ap­proach to fis­cal pol­icy. Walker rose to na­tional promi­nence, af­ter all, as one of the tough­est bud­getary hawks in the coun­try, and to what ex­tent he’ll live up to those roots – or move to­ward chaotic, Trump-fanned pop­ulism, or fol­low a third path – re­mains to be seen.

Walker’s fis­cal record has al­ways been at the heart of his ten­ure as gover­nor, but on closer ex­am­i­na­tion, it’s evolved to be some­thing more mod­er­ate, even lax — cer­tainly more so than he’ll ad­mit in pub­lic. Will 2018 fi­nally be the year he presents him­self plainly and takes on the man­tle of a mod­er­ate? As it stands, he’s likely re­assess­ing much of his ba­sic strat­egy, hav­ing just re-emerged from the low-ap­proval wilder­ness, the likes of which he hadn’t strug­gled with since 2011. This time around, he bot­tomed out in Septem­ber 2015, at the end of his brief run for pres­i­dent, at 37 per­cent – and he didn’t re­cover to 48 per­cent un­til last June.

Walker’s long jour­ney of gu­ber­na­to­rial trans­for­ma­tion be­gan in 2011, when the Act 10 union leg­is­la­tion and his first bud­get, which sliced $800 mil­lion from K-12 ed­u­ca­tion, shook the state to its core. Con­fronted with a large struc­tural deficit and the de­sire to make sweep­ing con­ser­va­tive changes early in his first term, Walker dove in head­first and sucked the rest of the state into a Mael­strom. In the 2012 re­call elec­tion that fol­lowed, he stuck to his guns, re­peat­ing in end­less ads, “Our re­forms are work­ing.”

Yet in the two years that fol­lowed, Walker went a bit soft. The dif­fi­cul­ties of fund­ing state gov­ern­ment and wran­gling with the Leg­is­la­ture took their toll, and by late 2014, the state had gone from Walker’s hard-won (and cel­e­brated) pos­i­tive “struc­tural” bal­ance to a pro­jected struc­tural deficit of $1.8 bil­lion, one of the worst in re­cent his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the Leg­isla­tive Fis­cal Bu­reau.

Such a deficit is like a fis­cal hang­over from the pre­vi­ous two years and refers to the amount the state is al­ready in the hole when it sets to writ­ing the next bi­en­nial bud­get.

Freshly re-elected in 2015, Walker pro­posed a $127 mil­lion cut to K-12 (de­nied by the Leg­is­la­ture) but also $1.3 bil­lion in new bor­row­ing for road con­struc­tion, of which law­mak­ers ap­proved $850 mil­lion. By this point, the hawk had more or less come in for a land­ing, as the size of state gov­ern­ment swelled by some $4.4 bil­lion in the 2015-17 state bud­get, ac­cord­ing to the con­ser­va­tive MacIver In­sti­tute. “It is dis­ap­point­ing to see such a large in­crease in spend­ing,” a MacIver re­port says.

Walker tends to spend the most when there’s an elec­tion in the off­ing. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he an­nounced a $977 mil­lion “sur­plus,” fol­lowed by a $541 mil­lion tax cut plan, all of which later con­trib­uted to the state’s struc­tural deficit. And last year, the check­book was out again, with a record $639 mil­lion in­crease for schools in­cluded in the 2017-19 bud­get, not to men­tion $3 bil­lion in in­cen­tives for lur­ing Fox­conn Tech­nol­ogy Group to Racine County. Af­ter an en­ergy-suck­ing pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, he needed to show he was still ded­i­cated to the state.

This elec­tion could be Walker’s tough­est yet. “It’s likely to be head­winds for ev­ery Repub­li­can in the coun­try right now,” says Charles Franklin, di­rec­tor of the Mar­quette Law School Poll, not­ing Trump’s low ap­proval rat­ing and the ten­dency of midterm elec­tions to swing against the rul­ing party.

Even Fox­conn, Walker’s $10 bil­lion coup, could turn into a li­a­bil­ity. Repub­li­cans are still pumped about the project, but Democrats think it’s over­priced and li­able to bomb po­lit­i­cally out­side of South­east Wis­con­sin.

A ground­break­ing cer­e­mony has been op­ti­misti­cally sched­uled for the first week of Oc­to­ber and could give Walker a boost. Or maybe not. One Demo­cratic in­sider laughs at how dif­fi­cult the project will be to sell to out­state vot­ers af­ter years of Repub­li­cans’ de­mo­niz­ing Mil­wau­kee and Madi­son. They’ll have to dis­tract from it, he says, by dig­ging up dirt on Democrats, “one shit story af­ter an­other.”

BY 2014, THE STATE HAD GONE FROM WALKER’S HARD-WON POS­I­TIVE BAL­ANCE TO ONE OF THE WORST DEFICITS

IN RE­CENT HIS­TORY.

Walker an­nounc­ing in Septem­ber 2015 that he was end­ing his bid for the White House

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