Minnesota House Majority Leader Matt Dean, reacting negatively to Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget-balancing proposal, said Tuesday, though, that he is confident the plan will have at least one huge supporter.
“Gov. Walker must be doing back flips,” he said.
Dean was referring to Wisconsin’s new Republican chief executive, Scott Walker, whose approach to solving his state’s budget problems stands in stark contrast to Dayton’s.
Walker wants to slash government spending — and public employee rights — to balance the state’s budget. Dayton wants to do some budget cutting, but he also wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest.
Dean and other state Republican leaders said that the Walker approach, especially when contrasted with Dayton’s desires, will make it easier for Wisconsin to entice disgruntled Minnesota companies to move across the border to a state where, the new governor proudly proclaims, “We’re open for business.”
Walker, though, has other problems
Chances are, though, that for the moment, Walker is a little too busy trying to wade through protesters to do any back flips or recruit any Minnesota businesses.
Thousands have been filling Wisconsin Capitol corridors in Madison as a Republican-led legislature prepares today to pass Walker-inspired legislation that would strip away most collective bargaining rights from public employees.
In addition, the legislature there is expected to pass bills that will require public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their wages toward their pensions and pay 12 percent of their health care costs. (Only police, fire and state trooper unions are exempted from the Walker plan.)
Anger levels are so high that Madison public schools were closed Wednesday when 40 percent of the city’s teachers called in sick. And schools there and in other districts around the state closed today because of an “illness” epidemic among the state’s teachers.
Walker has said that he will consider activating National Guard troops if he deems it necessary to control protests.
What’s startling about this is that Walker, who breezed to an election victory in November, is dealing with only a small portion of Wisconsin’s deficit problems, which are small, compared with Minnesota’s.
For the moment, Walker and the legislature are dealing with a $200 million shortfall in the current biennium.
In the next biennium, Wisconsin faces a $3 billion deficit, half the size of Minnesota’s. To date, Walker hasn’t produced a budget to deal with that problem.
Some key comparisons
For sake of comparison, Dayton seeks a $37 billion budget for the next biennium while Republicans want Minnesota to spend about $32 billion. Wisconsin’s budget for the next biennium currently calls for about $31 billion, but there’s that $3 billion hole.
Also, for the sake of comparison, Wisconsin does have a four-tier income tax structure, with rates running from a low of 4.6 percent to a high of 6.75 percent.
Under Dayton’s proposal, Minnesota’s wealthiest would move into a fourth tier, paying 10.95 percent, up from the current 8.8 percent. Additionally, there would be a 3 percent surcharge on income of more than $500,000 (for married couples). Currently under Minnesota’s tax system, the lower 90 percent of income earners pay a higher percentage of the income (12.3 percent).
Walker says his proposal to cut into benefits of public employees will save the state $30 million by June 30, the end of the current biennium. The savings would amount to $300 million in the next biennium, he says.
That, of course, is not figuring the costs of calling out the National Guard.
“When is the last time you heard of a governor threatening to call out the National Guard to stop an insurrection?” asked Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. “I can tell you, Ohio has the same thing going on. … These [attacks on public employees] are coming straight out of the Republican party’s national playbook.”
Signs of the tensions in Wisconsin are everywhere.
The streets around the Capitol are filled with cops, highway patrol officers, even DNR enforcement officers.
Growing anger in Wisconsin
OnWednesday, those streets also were filled with thousands of protesters chanting, “Recall Walker Now!”
There’s a sign at the office of the Senate’s majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, saying he will meet people by appointment only “due to threats of personal violence against certain legislators.”
After all-night hearings with angry public employees Tuesday night, Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat from the northwest corner of the state, told protesters at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday that he was moved by what he was seeing.
“Never before have I seen this kind of passion, other than the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war and the environmental movement,” Jauch said. “You are part of a very special moment in time. You must seize it, build upon it and don’t stop.”
Monroe predicts that the anger in Wisconsin will only grow. He also believes Minnesota was just 9,000 votes away from having the same anger. That’s how close Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer came to defeating Dayton.
The “too much government” rhetoric of the defeated Emmer and the victorious Walker is virtually identical.
Nearly same scenario here
The anti-union bills being offered up by Minnesota Republicans in this legislative session — to make this a right-to-work state and dramatically cut the number of public employees, for example — would have “sailed” through the process had Emmer been elected, Monroe said.
So how could two states that have so much in common have come to such different approaches?
Walker, 43, was the executive of Milwaukee County from 2002 to 2010. He had tried in 2006 to win Republican Party endorsement but failed. This time around, he was successful and ran against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, getting 52 percent of the vote.
The key to his victory — according to longtime political reporter Stan Milam, who writes a political column that is syndicated throughout the state — was a tough primary race against former Wisconsin Congressman Mark Neumann.
While Walker and Neumann were generating headlines across the state, Barrett was unopposed — and ignored.
“Nicest guy in the world,” said Milam of Barrett. “He’s one of those guys, who, if everyone in the state could meet him personally, would win easily. But you can’t do that.”
As it was, Barrett’s campaign generated little notice, until it was too late.
There were other factors that helped Walker, too. The Tea Party Patriot movement was stronger in Wisconsin than in Minnesota. (Wisconsinites, for example, voted U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold out of office, even though state polls showed he was generally respected.)
It also helped that Walker’s Milwaukee County roots enabled him to hold down the size of margin that a Democrat needs to gain there to win a statewide race.
Milam points out that nothing Walker is doing should come as a surprise. As the Milwaukee County executive, Milam said, Walker tried to pass many of the things that are blowing through the legislature now. The difference there was that Walker was dealing with a board of commissioners controlled by Democrats, who stymied all of Walker’s hopes.
At this early point, Milam said, it’s hard to know if Walker’s moves are popular with the voters. He is hearing that even some of Walker’s supporters are wishing the governor would have been “a little more diplomatic.”
There is some question as to why Walker didn’t wait to take on union rights and employee benefits until he dealt with the major part of the deficit.
Even members of his own party were getting nervous Wednesday. Republican senators were meeting in “an undisclosed location” to talk about the governor’s legislation on public employees. There were modest changes, granting workers some civil service rights.
But the final bill, the version of which passed on a straight party-line vote through a Senate committee last night, will lead to growing anger among public employees.
For the time being, Walker was saying, “We will not be intimidated.”
But for the moment, he’s probably a little too busy to be recruiting Minnesota businesses or doing back flips.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.