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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Right to Work Latest Move in Walker Transformation of Wisconsin

From The Journal Sentinel
By Jason Stein
Hundreds of union members rally outside the Capitol in Madison on Tuesday to oppose a Republican-led measure that would make Wisconsin a right-to-work state.
Reuters/Landov

Madison — With their embrace of right-to-work legislation, Republicans are advancing their four-year transformation of Wisconsin, weaving conservative policies and politics into the fabric of a state where the Progressive era has yielded to the age of Scott Walker.

This Republican revolution arguably represents the greatest reordering of Wisconsin's politics in a century, encompassing everything from allowing the concealed carry of handguns, putting new rules on abortion providers and rolling over once powerful union foes.


Bill Kraus, who worked on his first Republican U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and later ran the campaign and office of GOP Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, called the shift the deepest change in state politics since Progressive leader "Fighting Bob" La Follette rose to prominence a century ago.

"A lot of settled things have become unsettled," said Kraus, a moderate who describes himself now as a politically "homeless" man without the shelter of his former partisan affiliation. "It's very radical and the question we don't know is whether it's a reflection of a changed Wisconsin or a group in power that have misread their mandate and are more lucky and blessed than right."

Kraus said the answer won't come until Walker — the architect of this transformation — leaves office.

These Republican successes in the statehouse since 2011 have catapulted the governor into near front-runner status as a potential GOP presidential candidate but have also come at a cost: bitter protests; legal challenges that have reached the state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court; and recall elections at home.

Brett Healy, a former chief of staff to GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen who has more than two decades in Wisconsin politics, noted many statehouses around the country shifted to the right four years ago. But Healy said the revolution here stands out compared to those states and, especially, the partisan paralysis in Washington, D.C.

From Walker on down, Republicans here have overworked and outmaneuvered Democrats, said Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank in Madison. In addition, Republicans redrew the lines of legislative and congressional districts to help lock in their 2010 gains for the next decade.

"I would argue that no state has done more in the past four years than Wisconsin for fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. I think you see that reflected in the governor's recent rise in the national polls," Healy said. "From a conservative perspective, it's amazing how far Wisconsin has come in four years."

Tom Loftus, a Democrat and longest-serving Assembly speaker in the state, went further as he recalled Wisconsin's legacy of liberal and, in Milwaukee, occasionally even socialist politics.

"The last four years have put an end to that heritage," said Loftus, also a former University of Wisconsin System regent. "I think that it no longer holds much sway."

Democrats argue that so far, the state's shaky budget and mediocre jobs numbers don't amount to a strong endorsement of the Republicans' shift. Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick disagreed, saying there's a reason Walker "bucked the status quo" for four years.

"Giving Wisconsinites the freedom to control their own lives creates prosperity for our people, as well as our state," Patrick said.

Wisconsin has been known as the first state to pass worker's compensation and unemployment insurance laws, a key birthplace of the public employee unions like AFSCME, and contributed academic leaders who helped craft the federal Social Security system. President Theodore Roosevelt said that Wisconsin had become "literally a laboratory for wise experimental legislation" to better the lives of Americans.

In the 1970s, a decade of mostly Democratic control, the state consolidated its university system and put in place open records and meetings laws and public financing of campaigns.

But Wisconsin has clear conservative traditions as well. In the late 1930s, the state rolled back certain union powers a decade before similar legislation known as the Taft-Hartley Act passed Congress.

After a 2010 election in which Republicans took control of a state government previously controlled by Democrats, Walker and his legislative allies have brought out this side of the state. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) compares the changes to those done by Democrats in the 1970s, but acknowledges they represent a "tectonic shift."

In just four years, Republicans have:

■ Repealed most collective bargaining for most public employees. The current right-to-work bill would ban contracts that require private-sector workers to pay union fees, potentially intensifying the political changes in this state by limiting unions' finances and their influence on elections.

"If you would have put me in a time machine, then I wouldn't have believed it," said John Drew, a United Auto Workers servicing representative and 41-year veteran of the group.

■ Cut taxes by up to more than $1.9 billion from July 2011 to June 2015.

■ Cut state aid to schools, local governments and universities, balancing many of those cuts with reductions in public workers' take-home pay. At the same time, Republicans have expanded taxpayer-funded private voucher schools.

■ Turned down federal tax dollars for building an $810 million train line between Milwaukee and Madison and for expanding the state's BadgerCare health programs for the needy.

■ Required voters to show photo ID at the polls and prohibiting early voting on weekends. The photo ID law was frozen before the fall election by the U.S. Supreme Court and now awaits a potential hearing by the nation's highest court.

■ Eased mining laws to better the chances of a proposed massive open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. Walker's current budget proposal would also freeze purchases by a long-standing state land conservation program.

■ Approved the concealed carry of firearms by permit-holders and the so-called "castle doctrine" law giving more legal protections to homeowners who shoot intruders.

■ Defunded Planned Parenthood clinics in the state and passed legislation to require women seeking abortions to get ultrasounds.A related requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals has been frozen by a federal judge.

Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest serving state lawmaker in the nation, has worked under 12 governors including Walker — six Republicans and six Democrats. Risser said that Walker is more interested in his profile outside Wisconsin than any of those 11 predecessors.

"It's focused nationally," Risser said of Walker's agenda.

Healy, the Republican think tank leader, said that any party with total control of a state or country needs to guard against overreach, especially in a swing state like Wisconsin. But he said that so far Walker and legislative leaders have won their elections.

"You may not like their ideas, but you can't argue with their results (at the ballot box)," he said.

This new agenda hasn't always succeeded.

Walker retreated rapidly earlier this month when it became public that his administration had pushed University of Wisconsin System officials to scrap the so-called Wisconsin Idea. The governor said he hadn't known about the changes to the Progressive era guiding principle for the state's universities.

But under Walker's budget proposal the UW System would still see fundamental changes, becoming a quasi-public authority no longer subject to many state rules and seeing a $300 million cut in state aid over two years. The universities have a two-year budget of $2.2 billion in state money and $6.2 billion in all funding, state and federal.

Walker has said his budget proposal will give the UW System new freedom to innovate and become more efficient.

Loftus, the Democrat and former regent, disagrees, saying he sees an "existential threat" to an institution he cherishes.

"The UW System is the most successful public policy (in Wisconsin) in the last half of the 20th century," he said.


Bill Glauber of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Jason Stein covers the state Capitol and is the author with his colleague Patrick Marley of "More than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions and the Fight for Wisconsin." His work has been recognized by journalism groups such as the American Society of News Editors, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors.

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