Wisconsin’s conservative reformation draws to a close
After weeks of delay and intra-party wrangling, the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Finance Committee has passed the state’s biennial budget. It now heads to the Assembly, and then to the Senate, for final debate and passage. Assuming that it passes largely as currently written, which is expected, this budget is the muffled whimper that marks the end of Wisconsin’s conservative reformation.
When Wisconsinites elected Scott Walker as governor in 2010, they ushered in a new era in Wisconsin governance. Walker brought to Madison a governing philosophy steeped in the modern conservative movement. 2011 marked the beginning of a Wisconsin conservative reformation that was unprecedented in the state’s history.
In 2011, Walker and the legislative Republicans were aggressive and ambitious in advancing a conservative agenda. They touched the third rails of state politics and slew dragons. In a short span, Walker and the Republicans enacted transformational changes in Wisconsin including welfare reform, massive regulatory reform — especially in the DNR, expanding Second Amendment rights, expanding educational choice, freezing tuition at the University of Wisconsin and, of course, enacting Act 10. The hundreds of reforms made since 2011 have truly made Wisconsin better for citizens and businesses.
Voters have rewarded Republicans with electoral success. The voters defended Walker’s conservative agenda by reelecting him during the recall election and again in 2014. Republicans have maintained their majorities in both houses of the legislature for most of this decade as the conservative wing of both caucuses has grown. Even the Wisconsin Supreme Court has moved to be more conservative. Wisconsinites have shown their support for the conservative reformation time and time again at the ballot box.
But along the way, Wisconsin could not escape from its tradition of big, expensive government. While Republicans have been making tremendous progress in many areas, they have continued to spend more every budget. The current 2017-2019 proposed budget that the JFC just passed spends $76.02 billion. That is a 4.8 percent increase in spending over the previous budged.
The proposed 2017-2019 budget spends a full 23 percent more than the last budget signed by Gov. Jim Doyle. On a per capita basis, Doyle’s last budget spent about $10,868 per Wisconsinite while the new budget spends $13,131 per person — a 21 percent increase in per capita spending by state government in seven years. All of the Democrats’ rhetoric about “austerity” and “cuts” are pure myth. The truth is that Wisconsin’s Republicans have increased spending every single budget. To be fair, Doyle increased state spending 28 percent during his tenure. The Republicans did not increase spending as much as Democrats, but they were certainly not shy about increasing spending.
There are a few items in the new budget that conservatives will like. For example, UW tuition will continue to be frozen, but the budget spends more on UW to offset that. The state property tax will be eliminated. This saves taxpayers about $90 million per year. Able-bodies childless adults will be required to work or train and be subject to drug tests in order to receive Badgercare benefits. The prevailing wage law will be rescinded for state projects. The alternative minimum tax will be rescinded.
Those are very small potatoes in a stew full of massive hunks of new spending meat and bitter debt increases. The Republicans have seemingly lost the nerve to make the big, necessary reforms that Wisconsin still needs. The Republicans still control the entire law-making apparatus of government, but are about to pass a budget that is reminiscent of something from 2005. It spends more and tinkers around the edges, but is primarily designed to not offend anyone before the next election.
Where are the big ideas? Where is the cut or elimination of the state income tax? Where is the reformation of how Wisconsin builds and maintains its transportation infrastructure? Where is the fundamental reform of education? Where is an actual reduction in the size and scope of state government? Even the marginally more aggressive items that Walker suggested in his budget, like a “backto- school” sales tax holiday or a broad cut in income taxes, were rejected by legislative Republicans. Many of them went to Madison with a passion for Conservative reform, but now only have passion for getting reelected.
Rep. Bob Gannon (R-West Bend), who has said that he will not vote for this budget, was correct when he commented, “this budget is much better than a democrat governor or legislature would have proposed, but it is also not a conservative piece of work. Your government is in a growth mode.”
Indeed. And that growth is smothering the conservative reformation in its sleep.
Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. Reach him at owen@bootsand sabers.com.