The Wisconsin Recall: A View From Illinois

Tomorrow is the Wisconsin recall election.  Some have said that it’s the second-most important election of this year.  Some have said that it’s a foreshadowing of the November election.  I think Governor Scott Walker deserves to be returned to his office.


The History

Just over a year ago, Scott Walker was installed as Wisconsin’s governor, beating Tom Barrett by a 6-point margin (52-46).  When he came into office, Wisconsin had a $3.6 billion budget deficit and an unemployment rate of 7.7%.  In order to reduce the budget deficit and create jobs, he introduced the 2011 budget repair bill, which aimed to balance the budget.  In that bill, he adjusted the rights of public sector unions.  Under the bill, unions would no longer be able to collectively bargain for peripheral benefits, like health insurance or pensions.  They would still be able to collectively bargain for wages, but they wouldn’t be able to ask for a raise higher than inflation without a voter referendum.

The response from the unions (and the Democrats) was swift.  The Democrats from the state senate left the state to prevent a quorum in the Senate, which is required for all budget-related items.  However, on March 9, the Republicans stripped the budget language from the bill, and passed the collective bargaining reforms on their own, bypassing the need for a quorum. 

Throughout February and March 2011, protests ranging from 30,000 (in early February) to 185,000 (on March 12, when the Democratic senators returned from Illinois) were held in and around the state capitol.

The Comparison

When Walker took office in January 2011, there was a huge budget deficit and 7.7% unemployment.  Through April 2012, Wisconsin has created 30,500 jobs, and the unemployment rate has decreased a full percentage point to 6.7% (below the national average of 8.2%).  One of Governor Walker’s main assertions in his recall race is that Wisconsin employers are holding back their hiring until after the election has been decided.  So, even though there has been some significant job growth so far in the 15 months he’s been governor, there will be an explosion of growth if his policies are confirmed.  It was also reported in April 2012 that property taxes in Wisconsin actually decreased for the first time in 12 years.

In contrast to Wisconsin, Illinois began 2011 with a budget deficit of $13 billion, including a backlog of unpaid bills and almost $4 billion in missed payments to underfunded state pensions.  To repair the problem, the legislature (and the governor) enacted a 67% increase in the individual income tax rate (from 3% to 5%), and increased the corporate income tax from 4.8 percent to 7 percent.  Governor Quinn praised the tax increases, saying that it would raise $6.8 billion in revenue for the state each year.  This year, we still have 166,000 unpaid bills (about $5 billion), we still have a budget deficit of $500 million, and we have an unfunded state pension liability of $83 billion, which the Democrat-controlled legislature is content to put off until later, which doesn’t bode well for our state’s credit rating (Moody’s has already lowered our credit rating, and S&P is threatening a multiple-notch downgrade).  Our unemployment rate is hovering at 8.7%, which is 0.5% higher than the U.S. average (though we are down from 9.4% in January 2011, the same time as Governor Walker took over Wisconsin’s government).

The Outcomes

So, the Wisconsin unions garnered enough signatures to force a recall election on Governor Walker in Wisconsin, but the election has turned out to be about anything but what the unions care about (the collective bargaining bill that was passed).  It turns out, Wisconsin’s economy is getting better.  They’ve balanced their budget, the state didn’t have to layoff massive amounts of workers to do it.  It seems like most of the electorate is happy with the reforms Governor Walker and the Republican legislature passed.

Instead of the recall race being about collective bargaining, the issues of the race have been more run-of-the-mill: the economy, jobs, etc.  But, with the economy turning up, it seems like the challenger, Tom Barrett, doesn’t have too much to run against.  This has led to a lot of Democratic infighting.  Democrats are complaining that the Democratic National Committee isn’t putting enough money into the race (they’ve put a paltry sum out in support of Barrett).  It seems like the DNC is writing off the race.  President Obama has stayed away from the race (because what could be worse for his re-election chances than going to campaign with a guy who loses the next day?).

And, in a twist of arcane law, Governor Walker has been able to raise unlimited cash from outside donors for the recall race, while his opponent has had to stay within a $10,000 donation limit.  This has given him a sizeable cash advantage over Barrett, which may be the turning point in the race.  Still, there has been plenty of investment from both sides.  There was reporting yesterday that the recall race will have been the most expensive race in Wisconsin history.  The Center for Public Integrity said that between Walker, Barrett and outside groups, the race has cost $63.5 million, which topped the previous record of $37.4 million.

The most interesting outcome of the race for me (and the most surprising) was the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s endorsement of Governor Walker.  The Journal-Sentinel has not exactly been a fan of Walkers, but in its endorsement, it said the following:

“Walker’s rematch with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was prompted by one issue: Walker’s tough stance with the state’s public-employee unions. It’s inconceivable that the recall election would be occurring absent that. And a disagreement over a single policy is simply not enough to justify a vote against the governor.

“A Marquette Law School Poll in January showed that many people in the Badger State agree. In that poll, 72% of Republicans, 44% of independents and 17% of Democrats said recalls should be limited to criminal wrongdoing. Republican state Rep. Robin Vos has proposed tightening the recall mechanism; he should continue to push for that after the election, regardless of who wins…

“To his credit, Walker has helped to right the state’s finances with a minimum of gimmicks – the governor reported recently that the state may be able to book a $154 million surplus next year. This good news has been lost in the clutter surrounding an unnecessary recall election that will cost as much as $18 million just to stage, according to the Government Accountability Board.”

The Bottom Line

I wish that we had a governor in Illinois like Scott Walker.  But we don’t.  We don’t have a governor, or a legislature, that can stand up to special interests and say, “No.”  So the best that I can do, at this point, is to look to Wisconsin voters and say, “Vote for Walker.”

  • Maureen Kennedy

    The joys of politics are like the joys of parenting. You made tough decisions that people don’t like, but the results speak for themselves. Those who cater to the masses may be popular, but they’re not very helpful in getting things turned around. On the flip side, those who actually take steps to improve a situation get ragged on the entire time. It’s sad and unfortunate. People are dumb, lazy, obstinate, and generally ungrateful for things that actually HELP them in the long run, because their “now” desires aren’t being met!

    • TNeal

      Along those lines, possibly the most popular sign to spring up in rural Wisconsin is “Recall Santa! I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas.”

      • Robert Ewoldt

        I love it!

  • TNeal

    Good summary of what’s happening here in Wisconsin. I will be glad to see all the misinformation come down off the highways here in Wisconsin. “Teachers demonized,” “Jobs lost,” “Take Wisconsin back,” etc. This all started over a single issue as you pointed out and a lot of misunderstanding even on that issue.

    To me, the balanced budget is Walker’s single most impressive accomplishment.