Wisconsin, the birthplace of the American socialist movement and the first state to allow public employees to unionize, has a blunt conservative governor named Scott Walker who has become a familiar face in the national spotlight.
Walker, who signed Republican-backed legislation last year to eliminate most public sector unions' abilities to collectively bargain while requiring employees to start contributing to their pensions (5.8% of their salaries, on average) and double their health care premium (12.4% of premiums), has balanced a budget that started with a $3.6 billion deficit.
So far, the modest changes in state law are working. For example, Walker's reforms allow schools to take private bids on health care insurance, saving schools hundreds of dollars per pupil. In addition, school districts have been able to implement performance-based payment systems, which has saved hundreds of teachers from being laid off.
For his efforts, Walker now faces a recall effort. Supporters recently filed more than 1 million signatures (twice as many as required). Walker will now be forced to defend himself in a special election.
According to Democratic and Republican Party officials, the spending on the recall by both sides is expected to total $100 million. That does not include $9 million in processing and software costs to taxpayers, according to estimates from the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the agency tasked with verifying petitions. This week, the MacIver Institute informs TAS, the agency failed to fulfill its promise to post the signed petitions online for inspection, which will only encourage additional expensive legal battles.
Thanks to Wisconsin law that allows political committees to raise unlimited funds for recall campaigns, Walker last month raised an impressive $5.1 million, which added to a $12 war chest built up since January of last year. A notable $500,000 donor is Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, a conservative activist and major funder of 527s, such as American Crossroads and the Club for Growth.
Recalls in Wisconsin have been permitted since 1926, but only four were held until last year. In an August special election, Democrats and outside union groups spent $44 million trying to recall six state senators. They succeeded only in removing two of them, and thus failed to win back a majority in the state senate.
Now, with labor unions making it a high priority to spend heavily in Wisconsin, Democratic consultants are concerned about using so many resources just months before the 2012 general election.
Gov. Walker, seeing the political challenges ahead, is proposing a major income tax cut, but he has backed off supporting right-to-work legislation of the sort that has just passed in Indiana. His approval number is at 51 percent (higher than President Obama's 47 percent in Wisconsin), and Democrats are yet to find a strong, well-known candidate to challenge him.
Former Senator Russ Feingold was the most popular name floated as a potential opponent, but he is not interested. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk announced her candidacy in mid-January, but has a record of defeat and extreme-left views. Likely candidates Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Rep. David Obey, according to a recent Marquette Law School poll, trail Walker 50-44 and 49-43 percent, respectively. And State Senator Tim Cullen, a candidate who's won the backing of the increasingly RINO-ish Republican Senate candidate, former Governor Tommy Thompson, also trails 50-40.
Walker faces an additional problem: a widening corruption investigation stemming from his tenure as Milwaukee County executive, which has led to the arrest of some of his former top aides. Although Walker himself is not under suspicion, former deputy chief of staff Tim Russell faces embezzlement charges involving more than $21,000 from a nonprofit Walker asked him to run. During the investigation, Russell's domestic partner Brian Pierick, who has donated $250 to Walker, was charged with a felony child enticement after seized phones and computers showed him trying to lure young children into his van. In addition, prosecutors have charged former aid Kevin Kavanaugh with stealing $43,232 in donations while serving as treasurer of the local Military Order of the Purple Heart. Democrats will certainly make political hay as more details emerge from the investigation that is being led Milwaukee County district attorney John Chistholm, a Democrat.
It remains to be seen how badly the corruption investigation will hurt Walker's chances. But it is clear that the outcome of recall election will set the tone for the rest of the country as states continue to wrestle with the interests of unions and serious fiscal crises.