Until now, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to remake the historically progressive state as a brutish bastion where schools are underfunded, local services are starved, local democracy is rendered dysfunctional and working people can’t get a break was just that—an “attempt.”
Now, as the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate move toward definitive votes on a budget plan that would implement Walker’s agenda, theory gives way to reality.
All the fighting up to this point has been prologue. But it is important to remember that on the flashpoint issue of collective bargaining rights, the governor has not gotten his way. A court challenge has prevented implementation of Walker’s plan to strip state, county and municipal workers and teachers of basic labor rights.
Unless the state Supreme Court decides the issue in Walker’s favor today, however, the governor’s legislative pointmen will insert the changes in the budget plan that is to be voted on this week.
That prospect has stirred new demonstrations and passionate criticism from Wisconsinites who recognize that this could be a critical turning point in the traditionally progressive state’s history.
Legislators who have backed Walker up to this point have done damage to Wisconsin—and to the national discourse about how best to address deficits. But the damage has not been particularly deep, let alone permanent.
Now, the threat is real.
If Walker gets his way, Wisconsin will be radically changed—and that change will be for the worse. At the same time, the restructuring of Wisconsin will send a signal to Republicans in other states and at the national level that they, too, should follow the dictates of the Washington “think tanks” and billionaire funders who want to restructure America as a radically right-wing nation.
Public opinion surveys show the governor’s approval ratings have tanked and find scant enthusiasm for his approach.There is little reason to question that Wisconsinites will reject the Walker agenda and its supporters when they get a chance to do so. That rejection will come at the polls, in recall elections this summer and in regular elections next year.
But in the meantime, schools will be forced to make severe cuts. Seniors and working families will be denied access to needed health care. Vital programs will wither and be shuttered. And hundreds of millions of dollars will be steered away from the public programs and into the accounts of the governor’s campaign contributors and political cronies.
Wisconsin will be harmed. And some of that harm will take years, perhaps decades, to reverse.
Legislators should consider these self-evident truths as they prepare to vote on the Walker budget.
This is a “which side are you on?” moment.
And it will decide the future not just of Wisconsin but of the Republican Party that was founded 157 years ago by anti-slavery radicals in the east-central Wisconsin community of Ripon.
The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly is currently led by a Walker ally, speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. The Republican-controlled Senate is led by another Walker ally, majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald brothers will march in lockstep with the governor—hence the derisive term for Wisconsin governance in its current form: “Fitzwalkerstan”—and they will do their best to game the rules to pass the budget in a form that he approves.
But it is not too late for responsible Republicans—and there are many responsible Republicans in the Assembly and Senate—to reject the crude pay-to-play politics that Walker and the Fitzgeralds have imported from outside Wisconsin.
State Senator Dale Schultz, R–Richland Center, broke with Walker at a critical stage in the fight over the governor’s attempt to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of their collective bargaining rights. So, too, did four members of the state Assembly.
Schultz and the other dissenters showed that the Republican Party can be more than a rubberstamp. In the coming days, if eleven Assembly Republicans (the four who have already opposed Walker and seven more) refuse to go along with the worst elements of the governor’s plan; or, as is more practical, if just three Senate Republicans (Schultz and two of several relative moderates) make the break, the will of the people could yet trump the iron will of the governor.
Now really it is time for responsible Republicans to stand for Wisconsin—rather than Walker. They have it in their power to prevent the GOP from becoming nothing more than the Republican Party of Walker and their state from becoming a genuine Fitzwalkerstan.