Wisconsin is a swing state, so single-party control by Democrats or Republicans doesn’t occur very often. And when voters do hand total control to either political party, that control has a tendency to be short-lived in the Badger State. Wisconsin Democrats had total control over state government in 2009 and 2010 before they were swept out of power in the 2010 GOP wave election.
Today, Wisconsin state government is controlled by Republicans across the board. Gov. Scott Walker has comfortable Republican majorities in the state Senate (18-15) and Assembly (60-39). As long as the governor and legislature agree on the issues, they can pass just about any policy they want into law. Minority Democrats are relegated to the loyal opposition.
But single-party control also shines a spotlight on the stark differences between the two parties on the major issues that divide them. As Gov. Walker and the GOP-dominated legislature have their way on issues such as taxes, education, job creation and more, Democrats respond by highlighting their differences and forcing Republicans to defend their positions on the difficult and controversial issues. It’s all they can do.
But the legislative process also allows the two political parties and their election allies a chance to anticipate the major issues in the next election. And it’s pretty clear where legislative Democrats believe Republicans will be vulnerable in 2014: taxes, education, health care and jobs.
With the battle over the state budget complete, here are a few of the major issues Democrats will likely focus on in 2014.
Income tax cuts
The GOP budget calls for a $650 million dollar cut to income taxes, which nearly doubles the governor’s original tax cut proposal. Democrats argue that those making $100,000 or more will receive 55 percent of the tax cuts, and they believe the cuts should be targeted to lowering the bottom rates, not those at the top. Democrats will surely hit Republicans with the “tax cut for the wealthy” argument in 2014. The average cut for all earners who receive a tax cut will be $158. The income tax cut for those making $100,000 to $150,000 will be $281 while those making $300,000 or more will see their taxes cut by $1,518, according to figures released by the legislature’s budget office.
Republicans say that the tax cut decreases all income tax rates, making it flatter and fairer.
Public school funding
Democrats will criticize Republicans for the additional funding for voucher schools and the $650 million income tax cut at the expense of more funding for public schools. In addition to the income tax cuts, Republicans expanded the voucher school program statewide, with enrollment caps of 500 students in the first year, and 1,000 students in the second, at a cost of $60 million. This expansion, along with the new $30 million tax break for parents who send their children to private schools, will cost $90 million annually. Republicans will note that they did in fact increase funding for public schools by $300 million over and above what Gov. Walker requested, capped enrollment in the statewide voucher program and will require choice schools to be held accountable with regular accreditation by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). But Democrats will counter that a statewide voucher program will result in two separate school systems in Wisconsin, both paid by taxpayers.
Democrats wanted Gov. Walker to accept $114 million a year in federal Medicaid funds to expand Wisconsin’s BadgerCare program. Walker rejected the federal money and argued that there will be coverage for those who move off Medicaid; they would get it through the federal health care exchanges called for under the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). Democrats charge Walker’s plan will cover 85,000 fewer people and cost more over the next two years. Republicans say more people will be covered under the exchanges because slots will become available in the BadgerCare program.
This line of attack will be based on how Wisconsin compares to other states in job creation. Today, Democrats criticize Walker because Wisconsin is 44th in the nation in job growth, 45th in wage growth, and last in short-term job growth. This, along with the governor’s promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first four years in office, will surely be used against Republicans running for legislative seats as well.
Gov. Walker will point to workforce development and other job creation initiatives, and that tens of thousands of jobs have been created.
There are 16 months until the 2014 midterm elections, but the election themes are developing quickly due to single-party GOP control of the Wisconsin legislature.
Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.