MADISON, Wis. — As Gov. Scott Walker travels the country ahead of a likely presidential campaign, he boasts about how quickly he transformed this state’s finances — weakening unions, eliminating a shortfall and pushing through $2 billion in tax cuts.
But back home in the State Capitol, a new round of partisan fighting has erupted over the lingering impacts of Walker’s policies and the amount of time he is spending away from Wisconsin in preparation for his expected White House bid. The standoff could have repercussions in 2016 as Walker’s fiscal record comes under scrutiny.
The promised revenue from the Republican governor’s previous budget moves has not fully materialized, leading Walker and GOP lawmakers to propose another round of reductions — including cuts in funding for public schools, the university system, health-care programs and a slew of other programs. The Republican-controlled legislature says it won’t be raising taxes, no matter what, though it might increase fees for registering a car or visiting a state park.
“We’re all going to have to scratch and claw and figure out how to get through this budget,” said Wisconsin Senate President Mary Lazich, a Republican from the Milwaukee suburbs who once carpooled with Walker. “When I listen to my constituency that elects me and puts me here, they see government as having plenty of money.”
Democrats are attempting to derail many of the cuts, and they accuse Walker of using the state’s budget to advance his political interests as a likely presidential candidate. They note that Walker wants to retain a tax break on manufacturers and farms and to issue $220 million in bonds for a Milwaukee Bucks basketball arena, even as he is pushing for cuts in education and health care.
They also complain that Walker — currently on a tour of Israel sponsored by political allies — spends too much of his time traveling in anticipation of a 2016 bid.
“He’s running for president, and he has checked out of here and has used people here in this state to further his political ambition,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat from Middleton. “He lands in Wisconsin, does his laundry, gets back on the plane and leaves.”
Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Walker, said the governor has continued to meet each week with legislative leaders and is in regular contact with lawmakers, his staff and others, regardless of his location.
“The bottom line is Governor Walker’s focus is on making sure Wisconsin is a great place to live, work, and raise a family,” Patrick said in a statement.
In the four years Walker has been governor, Wisconsin has become a petri dish for fiscally conservative policies. Walker campaigned using his daily brown-bag lunch as a symbol of how he and his family live within their means and that the state should do the same.
But during hours of budget-related hearings last week, Wisconsin Democrats argued that Walker’s tax cuts for the wealthy, corporations and property owners have yet to help many middle- and working-class families or jump-start the state’s stagnant economy.
Although Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is well below the national average, its rate of private-sector job growth is one of the worst in the nation, and wages have remained stagnant while other states see substantial gains. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Wisconsin’s middle class — households earning between about $34,500 and $103,000 — has shrunk at a faster rate than any other state in the country.
“When does this trickle-down economics kick in?” state Sen. Robert W. Wirch, a Democrat from southeast Wisconsin, asked Republicans during a hearing on repealing a law that helps set a minimum wage for state construction jobs. “Maybe it’s time we try something else. . . . Your philosophy, with all due respect, is not working.”
Republicans argue that the state’s economy is doing much better than Democrats say it is and that Wisconsin’s problems mirror a slow national recovery.
“When the economy does pick up across the country, I think we will really be able to kick it into gear and probably outpace a number of other states,” said state Sen. Stephen L. Nass, a Republican from southern Wisconsin.
The state sets its budget every two years, and Walker has said he will not make any announcement about running for president until after the task is done, likely in June. But his expected run has loomed large over the budget process, and several of Walker’s initiatives are the type that could play well in early primary states.
Walker has proposed cutting $300 million over two years from the public university system, which some Republicans describe as too flush with cash and bloated with bureaucracy. He also calls for cuts to elderly prescription assistance, rural health centers, transportation projects and public schools — although lawmakers are hopeful they will find cash for the latter.
Meanwhile, Walker wants to allow an unlimited number of children to take their share of public school funding to a private school, an idea that lawmakers from both parties have been slow to embrace. Walker has called for major changes to welfare programs, including mandating drug testing for those who receive benefits, and says his primary goal is to continue to lower property taxes.
“Now, I get a kick out of this. In my state, I’m proud to say we’ve cut the tax burden on the hard-working people of our state by some $2 billion over the past couple years,” Walker said in a speech Saturday in South Carolina. “In fact, property taxes today in my state are lower today than they were four years ago. What governor can say that?”
GOP lawmakers have reversed many of Walker’s cuts, such as funding for the removal of roadkill from the side of highways to money for groups that interview children who have been sexually abused.
Republicans had been holding out hope that tax revenue estimates were too conservative and that the state might collect more money than expected in coming years. But the state’s top budget analyst formally announced last week that more revenue is unlikely, prompting Republicans to scramble for a Plan B.
Meanwhile, Walker took a break from tweeting about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s immigration policy and President Obama’s spending habits to write on Twitter: “In Wisconsin, we’ve lowered taxes by $2 billion for individuals, employers, and on property. #WIForward.”
The partisan acrimony was clear at one point last week when lawmakers on a newly formed welfare reform committee fought over Walker’s proposal to require recipients of state assistance to undergo drug testing. Democrats responded by introducing amendments to require the governor, legislators and chief executives whose companies receive tax breaks to undergo similar testing.
“If we want the people of Wisconsin to pee in a cup . . . we should pee first,” said state Rep. Andy Jorgensen, a Democrat from southern Wisconsin.
Republicans quashed the effort by refusing to discuss the amendments, prompting Jorgensen to angrily accuse them of pursuing a “right-wing agenda.”
Rep. Mark Born (R), the committee chairman, said Republicans are overhauling the social welfare system because it is a top priority for their constituents, not because it bolsters the governor’s résumé.
“What the governor is doing in the state or anywhere else, I don’t think that impacts what we’re doing here,” Born said. “There are some things where the governor is talking about them and that’s great, because we are working together on this stuff, but I don’t really view any of his other activities as impacting this.”