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Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010

Woolly Mammoth in the Room

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To paraphrase a famous quote, you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but the hardest part about running for governor of Wisconsin is fooling all the people all the time.

After months of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker campaigning around Wisconsin on fabricated claims of mastering the financial troubles of Milwaukee County without ever raising taxes, the truth came crashing down around Walker just weeks before the election.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee, representing the area’s leading business executives, tried to hide their top-secret report on the disastrous financial condition of Milwaukee County under Walker until after the election.

But as hard as politicians and their keepers may try, it’s difficult to keep truth under wraps, especially when it’s the size of a woolly mammoth and twice as ugly.

The conclusion of the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s report is that Milwaukee County under Walker is on the brink of financial collapse. The report recommends emergency state legislation to allow the county to declare bankruptcy and begin liquidating its assets. Oh, and also eliminating the job of county executive.

“If we don’t make changes today,” the report’s draft summary concludes, “the future looks grim. Parks will close, bus routes will end and families in distress will not get the help they need. Our Milwaukee will grow smaller and smaller as people and companies leave.”

That grim future is not very far off, either. The report says in just six years the county’s pension and health care obligations will take every dollar raised through the county tax levy.

Actually, many of us have long suspected the destruction of county government was the long-term objective of Walker and other anti-government conservatives.

I asked Walker on the radio once whether eliminating county government was his ultimate goal. He said he wasn’t ready to recommend that step “yet.”

The political plan, no doubt, was that the chickens wouldn’t come home to roost amid all the wreckage of Milwaukee County until after Walker had moved on to higher office.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Four years ago, when Walker dropped out of the 2006 race for governor, many attributed it to pressure from party bosses for Walker to defer to Congressman Mark Green as if Green were some super candidate, which he wasn’t.

Walker’s Lack of Leadership

Less noticed was that Walker’s sudden exit came shortly after his politically embarrassing admission that Milwaukee County might require a major state financial bailout to avoid bankruptcy under his leadership.

Walker decided to lay low for four years and hope voters would forget. It almost worked, too. A complicit local media, including reporters who knew all about the county’s disastrous fiscal condition, remained silent while Walker sold himself around the state as a financial administration hero.

Walker’s political spin on the latest evidence of his government’s looming economic collapse is that his leadership over the past eight years somehow improved Milwaukee County’s financial condition: “We made it better.”

Just the opposite is true. Adopting a political opportunist’s philosophy that nothing is more important than minimizing taxes for current voters, Walker consistently underfunded pension obligations and every other county responsibility.

Anyone who’s ever experienced personal finances spiraling wildly out of control learns the hard way the worst thing you can do is stop opening your mail and answering the phone.

You end up with what Bruce Springsteen describes as “debts no honest man can pay.” That’s the brink to which Walker has brought Milwaukee County.

The question for voters on Nov. 2 is whether they want Walker to turn the state budget, which touches the lives of everyone in Wisconsin, into the same economic train wreck.

Logically, you would think the election-eve financial revelation about the Milwaukee County disaster would have a profound impact on the governor’s race.

It doesn’t come from any liberal source. The chairman of the Greater Milwaukee Committee also heads the conservative Bradley Foundation and Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

Walker’s opponent, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, says the next governor has to take realistic steps to begin dealing with a $2.7 billion state budget deficit the moment he sits down in his chair.

And Walker shows no indication he has learned any lessons about financial responsibility. His primary promise to voters is to increase that $2.7 billion state deficit to $4.2 billion by passing out $1.5 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest people in the state.

But don’t underestimate the political popularity of promising tax cuts and ignoring financial realities. Republicans are confident that’s all they need to do this year to be returned to power even after those same policies created one of the worst economic disasters in American history.

If Walker gets away with it, he could take the financial collapse of Milwaukee County statewide.

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