For many conservatives frustrated with the Republican Party, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been a bright spot. After taking office last year in a bluish state, Walker set out to close a $3.6 billion budget hole, in part, by reforming public sector unions. His reforms, which gave workers choices as to whether they wanted to join a union and curbed union collective bargaining powers that were crippling local budgets, sparked a wave a protests. But Walker stood firm and prevailed. Now unions plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on a campaign to recall him, with an election anticipated by June.
On Thursday, the Washington Examiner spoke with Walker by telephone about his reforms, the upcoming recall election, his decision to reject Obamacare funding, his views about the proper role of government and the extended Republican presidential primary.
“They’re working,” Walker said when asked to describe his reforms. “It’s helped to turn the state around. We’re definitely heading in the right direction. We’ve got a ways to go, but you compare us to other states, not the least of which my neighbor to the south of Illinois, and you can see that our reforms worked much, much better.”
He explained, “Not only did they take a $3.6 billion budget deficit and balance it without raising taxes, without massive public employee layoffs, without cutting things like Medicaid – in fact we actually added $1.2 billion to Medicaid – and without budget gimmicks, but by placing these long-term structural reforms to state and local budgets that not only helped us this year, but will help us for years to come.”
As an example, he noted that before the reforms, “school districts in our state overwhelmingly had to buy their health insurance from just one company. That company, by coincidence, just happened to be affiliated with the teachers’ union. Well, now, because of the reforms we put in place, school districts can bid that out. Literally across the state, (this change) has saved tens of millions of dollars, everywhere from the smaller districts saving $600,000 to $700,000, to a few of the districts saving several millions of dollars.”
That money, in turn, could be put back into classrooms. The fact that the reforms were actually able to go into effect, he said, was a big reason why the experience in Wisconsin has been different than what happened in Ohio. Gov. John Kasich had attempted to implement similar reforms there, but they were prevented from being enacted and voters ultimately voted to repeal the law through a ballot measure.
Unlike in Ohio, he said, when the school year started last fall, Wisconsin parents realized that the dire warnings of the unions didn’t actually come true.
On top of that, he said, “after five years of property taxes going up prior to my coming in at about $220 million on average per year, school tax levies this past year actually went down by $47 million. So, I think people saw that schools and local governments were fine. The fear factor was just overblown… And that’s the biggest difference between us and Ohio. We’ve actually seen proof positive that the reforms are working.”
Walker said for unions fighting for his recall, the issue is about money. In addition to curbing collective bargaining power, the reforms allowed workers the ability to choose whether or not to be a member of the union. The freedom of individuals to keep their own money rather than fork it over to unions in the form of dues, is a major threat to unions not just in Wisconsin, but throughout the nation if the reforms spread. In contrast to the unions, Walker said he sees the election as being about courage.
“I think when we prevail, it will ultimately send a message not only in Madison, my state house, but in state capitals all across the country that if you run an aggressive campaign, you come into office and tackle the tough issues, you do what voters expect you to do, which is to make tough decisions that think more about the next generation than the next election, that there will be people standing their with you,” he said. “And God help us if we fail. I think it sets aside any courage like that at least a decade, if not a generation. And I ultimately think that’s what’s at stake. It will have an impact on any sort of courageous political acts anywhere in any state, and probably in particular in the halls of Congress.”
Walker said an estimated $70 million to $80 million will be spent on the recall election, with tens of millions of dollars pouring in from unions. He wouldn’t say how much he felt he needed to raise to be competitive, but said fundraising was going well. He raised $12 million last year, and touted the fact that in his last report, 76 percent of his contributors were small donors giving $60 or less.
A Marquette University poll released this week found that Walker had a 46 percent approval rating, making him potentially vulnerable in to a well-funded recall challenge. But Democrats haven’t settled on a candidate and Walker has been leading his potential rivals in potential head-to-head matchups.
After being criticized by conservatives, Walker announced last month that he would not be using any of the $37 million in federal money granted to Wisconsin to start setting up a health care exchange as part of President Obama’s national health care law. Republican governors face a difficult dilemma, because under the terms of the law, if they don’t set up health care exchanges on their own, the federal government will step in and create one for them. Several GOP governors have decided to start setting up the exchanges. But Walker said he ultimately decided that because Wisconsin is part of the Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the national health care law, he didn’t want to do anything to undercut the legal argument.
He said he would wait to see the outcome of the Supreme Court case, and if that fails, the outcome of the November election, before deciding on whether or not to begin work on an exchange.
“My view is that you fight it first in the courts because I think that there is a legitimate argument, the federal government has overstepped its authority, and then if that fails, or it fails in part come June whenever there is a ruling by the Supreme Court, then you fight it politically in terms of trying to elect individuals to president and Congress and to the Senate who are going to be willing to undo that mess as well,” he said, adding that, “if all those options are exhausted, then and only then would we consider, probably at the end of this year, consider any other alternatives.”
Pending the outcome of the fight to overturn or repeal Obamacare, Walker said he’s done some “nibbling around the edges” on health care reform in Wisconsin, such as repealing a law that taxed health savings accounts. He also wants to do more to increase transparency.
“As people to pull up there iPhone, or their Blackberry or their cell phone, they can pretty much tell you what kind of plan they have,” Walker said. “I’ve got two high school sons, I know I need unlimited texting or I’d be dead in terms of my cell phone bill each month. I know where I get roaming, I know what coverage I’ve got, I know what my plan is based upon my family and my needs. Ask most people about their health insurance plans, they couldn’t even begin to tell you anything. We need to make the numbers so transparent that people are able to treat their health insurance and their health plans in away similar to what we all do to our cell phone plans. In doing so, it not only keeps costs down, it ultimately has people more accountable for their health and their wellness.”
Walker, like many governors, also supports block-granting Medicaid to states to provide more flexibility in how they run the program.
When the Republican presidential primary moves to Wisconsin on April 3, Walker said he plans to remain neutral. Though he did say that an extended presidential primary was a positive thing, because it will help the eventual nominee focus his message.
I also asked Walker, philosophically, what he saw as the proper role for the federal government.
“I think our founders set it out pretty clearly, not just in the Constitution, but in all the debate they had,” he said. “The federal government hasn’t just crept, they’ve run away from the principles our founders set out in the U.S. Constitution. To me, in its essence, the role of the federal government should be fairly limited to protecting our shores in terms of our military, handling disputes in terms of interstate commerce, things of that nature. But other things that literally have driven the budget out of control for decades have been things that are arguably not the proper role of the federal government.”