George Lightbourn is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
Vince Lombardi, perhaps the most famous of all Wisconsin sons, ran his football team to reflect his own personality. He relished it when the opposition knew what play was coming and still they could not stop it. Lombardi teams were uncomplicated, determined and ultimately successful
Those same traits define Governor Scott Walker. He ran for governor on a simple platform that included restoring honest budgeting to state government, one that required cutting spending rather than increasing taxes or borrowing money. Those who do not know Scott Walker might have dismissed his plan as so much political chatter. They had no clue that this man actually meant what he said.
He operated that way in running Milwaukee County. That is a county where union roots run deep and where traditional politicians were consistently frustrated by Walker’s determination to hold the line on taxes (eight budgets without an increase) and to require concessions from public sector unions (reduced the workforce by 20%). Determined but not harsh – Walker is widely regarded as a decent fellow – he proved himself to be the taxpayers’ bff.
Having risen to the bigger stage of state government, Walker’s resolve has been unaffected. He excels at the unglamorous side of governing – producing unflashy, balanced budgets, the kind of budgets that a generation of politicians has avoided. He was welcomed to the governor’s office with a deficit of $3.6 billion and without blinking he set out to stanch the red ink without borrowing or using the gimmicks that have become the staple of statehouses throughout America. He is willing to talk honestly about the magnitude of Wisconsin’s problem and is equally willing to propose painful solutions that he sees as necessary.
Walker set up shop in the seat of government in Madison. Like so many states, state government in Wisconsin has been the domain of organized labor since the early 1970s. Wisconsin is both the birthplace of AFSCME, and the first in the nation to authorize collective bargaining for public workers. Organized labor’s fingerprints are everywhere in state government.
AFSCME and the teachers’ union became a force in the State Capitol by providing money and ground troops to support labor friendly candidates - nearly all of whom are Democrats - a strategy that paid huge dividends for unionized workers. State and local workers in Wisconsin have one of the richest defined benefit pension systems for which employees contribute .06% of the cost and which produce much richer retirement benefits than their neighbors in the private sector. A WPRI study showed that a public sector worker with a salary of $48,000 has a retirement benefit equal to a private sector worker with a $70,000 salary. On the health insurance front, public workers contribute only about 6% to the cost of their health insurance.
In spite of organized labor’s best efforts, the political tsunami that swept America last November washed over Wisconsin. Overnight, the statehouse flipped from bright blue to bright red. The public unions and the Democrats were stunned and to this day, have yet to regain their balance. Soon after the election, they unsuccessfully attempted to ram through union contracts in the waning hours of a lame duck legislative session. Then, in early February when Walker announced that he wanted to curtail public sector collective bargaining as well as have employees contributing more to their own benefit package, labor took to the streets.
The nation has seen Wisconsin public employees of all stripes marching through the streets of Madison and through the most beautiful State Capitol building in America. In a bizarre bit of theatre, the Democrats in the State Senate fled that very building, fled the city, and even fled Wisconsin. We now see that they were attempting to buy time and now we know why. The Senate Democrats revealed that they had an agreement from all of the employee unions to agree with the governor’s plan to require employees to contribute ½ to the cost of their pensions and 12% of the cost of health insurance. However, they insisted that Governor Walker drop the notion of curtailing collective bargaining.
Once again, they revealed how little they understood Scott Walker. Their overture might have been appealing to a nuanced, deal-making politician. That is not Scott Walker.
No, Scott Walker is determined, not just to balance the current budget, but to ensure that state and local governments in Wisconsin will be able to balance their budgets in the years and decades to come. He is a determined man – some call him stubborn – one who is not given to highbrow speeches or sweeping theatrics. He is a man of principle who runs the government as though utterly unconcerned about his reelection.
Academics have written volumes about how to go about transforming government. Yet it has been left to Scott Walker to show the entire country how it is actually done, by adhering to his principles and doing the required blocking and tackling. Vince Lombardi would be pleased.