The Capitol Heats Up

 Joe Murray  |    March 03, 2011

A recent headline in The Wall Street Journal succinctly summed up the approach to dealing with large state budget deficits by governors around the U.S.: “Governors Chop Spending…Politicians in Both Parties Aim to Balance State Budgets Through Cuts, No Taxes.”

Governors across the U.S., including Wisconsin, are proposing budgets with deep spending cuts and almost no new taxes to address chronic budget deficits and a goal by legislators from both parties to eliminate these deficits primarily by shrinking government. Scott Walker made smaller government a cornerstone of his campaign last year.

But this approach to fixing the state’s fiscal problems won’t be easy. State government in Wisconsin helps fund very important programs and services including K-12 education, the UW System, vocational/technical colleges, local government big and small and health care programs like Badger Care. Gov. Walker has repeatedly said he will balance the state’s budget through cuts, but he will likely face a storm of criticism as he attempts to keep his promise.

Wisconsin state government has operated with an ongoing structural deficit for 15 years. What started out as a manageable deficit problem in the mid 1990s is now a much larger and politically difficult deficit problem. The 2011-2013 state budget hole is projected to be a staggering $3.6 billion. Walker’s promise to close the deficit through spending cuts alone will require state legislators to make difficult and in some cases very unpopular political decisions on how much to cut spending on programs with broad support among large constituencies back in their district.

How the newly empowered GOP State Legislature responds to Walker’s budget will be key to his success or failure. With budget cuts this large, every organized interested group on the receiving end of the cuts will descend on the Capitol in a way that is sure to get the attention of every legislator in every district. Republicans control state government and it will be the GOP who must pass the governor’s budget with all the political pain it will produce. Indeed, we have already seen massive protests in Madison in response to the proposed budget.

Gov. Walker must deal with the $3.6 billion deficit in his first two-year state budget already introduced. If the Republican-controlled Legislature finishes work on the budget on time, the budget will pass by July 1, 2011.

Special elections

In addition to the race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, voters must replace at least three GOP state representatives who resigned their seats to take a job in the Walker Administration. Representative Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington), Representative Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford), and Representative Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) will be replaced by voters this spring. 

Gottlieb is the new Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT); Gunderson is the Executive Assistant (EA) at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); and Huebsch is the Secretary of the Department of Administration (DOA). The local boards in all three seats along with the WRA will be involved once the elections are called by Gov. Walker and all the candidates are certified.

Voter ID bill likely

Republicans in the Legislature have tried to pass a voter identification bill for ten years. With a Republican governor and big majorities in both houses of the Legislature, it appears the GOP will finally get their wish.

State Senator Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan) and State Representative Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) have introduced this legislation (SB 6 and AB 7) and Republicans in both houses have the bill on a fast track to pass and reach Gov. Walker’s desk soon.

Polling indicates that there is broad public support for the voter ID legislation, but Democrats criticize the bill as nothing more than a way to suppress voter turnout, particularly among voters who traditionally vote Democratic, such as college students, the elderly and minorities.

Democrats argue that the voter ID requirement will make it more difficult to vote, thereby driving down their overall percentage of the vote to the benefit of Republicans. Republicans contend that the bill is necessary to guard against voter fraud and Wisconsin is one of only a handful of states that do not require some form of identification prior to voting.

Gov. Walker supports this legislation.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.

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