Walker was Victorious in Wisconsin Because His Reforms Worked
By David H. Landon
The folks at MSNBC had a bad night last Tuesday evening. They were determined that the “evil one,” Republican Governor Scott Walker, was going to lose his recall election. They were predicting that the election would be close, based on the exit polls they were reporting. However, they believed that the vaunted Democratic turnout machine would deliver the crucial urban votes to the Democratic candidate, Tom Barrett. When 45 minutes after the polls closed, the networks began to call the race for Walker, the MSNBC talking heads were clearly stunned. I thought they might have to carry poor Ed Schultz out of the studio on a stretcher, so ashen was he.
They needed a reason to account for the stunning defeat in which Walker won by a larger margin than he had in his first race against Barrett in 2010. They seized on the money spent on the campaign as the only logical explanation for the loss by Barrett. In reality, when you add in the in-kind support for Barrett from public sector unions, inside Wisconsin and from across the country, the difference in money spent by the two candidates becomes negligible.
In Wisconsin, an elected official has to be in office for one year before he or she could be challenged with a recall election. That rule worked dramatically in Walker’s favor. A year ago, he had challenged the public service unions with sweeping reforms. He curbed their power and cut off their automatic revenue source. Walker’s approval rating dropped into the low 40s. If the election had occurred then, Walker would, in all likelihood, have lost a recall challenge. A lot has happened in the last year in Wisconsin. Most importantly, Walker’s reforms have taken hold and produced results. Ultimately, Walker’s victory was because, through his leadership, he guided the state to enact policy reforms that worked.
If the election were about Walker’s reforms, you would have been hard pressed to learn about it from his opponent. The reforms were proving to be so successful, that Tom Barrett barely mentioned them in the final months of the campaign. And for good reason. Wisconsin voters were seeing the results in their schools and on their property tax bills.
You can be certain that if Walker’s budget had harmed public schools and the education quality of Wisconsin’s children, voters would not have treated him so kindly last Tuesday. But that’s not what happened. Beginning as early as last fall at the start of the 2011 school year, schools began using Walker’s reforms to balance their budgets without laying off teachers or making painful program cuts. Schools that were projecting deficits before the reforms were suddenly balancing their budgets. Because of the reforms, public service unions had lost the power to veto changes to their benefits. That power now resided with elected school boards.
Because of Walker’s reforms, enough savings were realized that when property tax bills went out, many taxpayers saw their taxes significantly drop for the first time in over a decade. Walker balanced the budget while reducing property taxes. He delivered on everything he promised. That’s why he won his recall election last Tuesday.
Attitudes of Wisconsin voters have also shifted when it comes to how they view the public service unions. When the reforms began, voters sympathies were with the unions by a slight majority. In a recent Marquette University poll, 75 percent of Wisconsin voters favor increases in public employees’ contributions for health care and pensions. It also showed 55 percent for limiting collective bargaining for public employees and only 41 percent opposed. Their bitter and raucous display of opposition to the reforms during the takeover of the Wisconsin State House last year seems to have galvanized opposition against their cause.
For the unions, the news only gets worse. Part of Walker’s reforms law ended the practice where dues money was deducted from union members’ paychecks and sent directly to union treasuries, with or without the members’ consent. Under the reform, public employees now have the choice of whether to pay union dues. After the reforms, the membership of AFSCME, the big union of Wisconsin state employees, fell from 62,818 to 28,785. Clearly that has to hurt the bottom line and the ability of public service unions to funnel campaign funds to the Democrats.
So now the question on everybody’s mind is whether or not this recall election has implications for November and beyond. In a state he won by 414,818 votes, President Obama’s campaign now admits Wisconsin is a toss-up. Wisconsin is beginning to shape up more like it did in 2000 and 2004, when Democrats narrowly carried it by margins of 5,708 votes and 11,384 votes, respectively. That isn’t an encouraging trend for the President. He will have to spend time and money to keep Wisconsin blue.
Most importantly for taxpayers and public, other states governments are beginning to challenge the stranglehold that public service unions have long held on state budgets. This is happening even in states as blue as New York. It has been long recognized that the compensation packages negotiated with public service unions were, in the long run, unsustainable. As painful as it is, these benefits have to be re-evaluated. We now have the example set by Governor Walker in Wisconsin as the blue print for reform.
David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.