Wisconsin pols were front and center in Washington today. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was explaining what his budget does and what Obama’s does. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was on the Hill testifying. I caught up with Walker this afternoon. He’d just left an interview with Greta Van Susteren, who he’s happy to tell me comes from Appleton, Wis.
After the political brawl over Wisconsin’s budget, he doesn’t look the worse for wear. He’s young and confident, with few regrets about his stormy introduction on the national scene.
Did he expect the full-fledged war with unions and the left when he proposed his budget and the change in union bargaining rules? “Yes and no,” he says. He quickly adds,”Now that’s a politician’s answer!” What he means by “yes,” he explains, is that “for eight years I’d been a county executive who consistently challenged the status quo. What I didn’t expect was to have this go national, have all this union and outside money coming in.” He says there is one thing he would have done differently. He tells me, “I would have moved sooner on a resolution,” referring to the legislative mechanism by which he passed the changes in union rules while 14 Democratic legislators hid out in Illinois. Ironically, while being accused of being inflexible, he was reaching out to Tim Cullen, a moderate Democratic lawmaker. He says Cullen now says “he was closer to [the governor] than the Democrats.” In short, Walker was never going to be able to make a deal with the runaway lawmakers and wound up spending two and a half weeks in an effort he now knows was futile.
On the recent state Supreme Court election, Walker says, “I wouldn’t read too much into it.” He contends, “Ultimately I think it was about who was more qualified.” He does point out, “For those two-and-a-half t o three weeks all the unions and the liberal groups said it was a referendum. Their signs said, ‘Get even.’ In the end the voters didn’t ‘get even.’ ” He points out that Madison went for the liberal judge while the rest of the state ran very close.” Wisconsin, he observes, remains a competitive state.
Now there is the prospect of recall elections, which he thinks are likely for 6 of the 8 Republicans and 3 Democrats. The outcome, he says, will depend on turnout and if the “unions just overwhelm” the Republicans with outside money. He says, “Fundamentally it is a poor use of the recall statute.” It is meant for instances of misconduct, he says. “Maybe you leaving your office for 3 weeks” would qualify, he observes pointedly. But, he says, the statute shouldn’t be used “just for taking a vote. That’s bad for our republic.” He contends, “Elections are about where you should go in the future. If you don’t like it there is another election.”
Still, he has no regrets about curbing public employee bargaining rights. In testimony this morning, he told Congress, “We didn’t want a short-term fix.” With the passage of his budget Walker says they are on track for two years of balanced budgets. In talks with local business leaders, he says their decisions to open or expand in his state “is not just about the tax differential.” Investors, he says, want a state with the “courage to tackle” its fiscal problems.
Walker told me that in his testimony today he tried to stress, “It’s not just about the money. It’s about making government more efficient and more accountable.” He cites education as a prime example. “We can now assign teachers based on performance,” he says.
The single biggest thing that Congress can do for his state is to block-grant Medicaid. It is the key to fixing his and other states’ budget problems. “It is the fastest-growing part of our budget.” He had to add in $1.2 billion more this year for this single item. With block-granting he says states can manage their own health care for the poor. He points to the example of welfare reform, which was pioneered in his state. He notes that with all the fears about how block grants would hurt the poor it was a great success. On health care, he says that in his state the Gunderson Lutheran health care network has made great strides in converting from “fee-for-service” medicine to “outcome-based medicine.” With block grants, Wisconsin could be free to implement that or other cost-saving systems.
As we wrap up, I ask him how concerned he is about the federal government’s fiscal problems. He says that the “failure of the federal government to get its act together” poses a threat to funding for the states and the long-term health of the economy. He says, “Aside from my friend Paul Ryan, there are very few people who exhibit political courage. We don’t have enough leadership.”
He may be right on that score. But he is also an example of what can be done at the state level if governors stick to their guns and push for fundamental reform.