Does Wisconsin have what it takes to make history?
After 10 months of struggling against Gov. Scott Walker and his ideological assault on the state's middle class and democratic institutions, his opponents are taking matters into their own hands by organizing a historic recall effort against Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
Led by the new grassroots group United Wisconsin, the recall effort will kick off Nov. 15 in all corners of the state. The group needs to collect more than 540,000 signatures on petitions for both governor and lieutenant governor within 60 days, which will then be submitted to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) by Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012.
“Scott Walker has got to go,” said Meagan Mahaffey, executive director of United Wisconsin. “Our state can't take any more of his abuse. We can't take one more day of Scott Walker's leadership.”
Also potentially in the works are recalls of individual senators in both parties. Republicans currently have a one-seat majority in the state Senate. If Democrats could pick up even one seat, then they could block Walker's damaging agenda. Likewise, if Republicans manage to pick up one more seat, they could again solidify their hold on power.
But can United Wisconsin achieve its goal of collecting more than a half-million signatures to recall Walker and Kleefisch?
And if so, what will happen next?
Timing Is Everything
Recalls have a notoriously stringent timeline. Signatures must be gathered within 60 days. The state GAB then has 31 days in which to review and verify those signatures, although it can petition the courts for more time. At the same time, the targeted elected official and the recall committee can review the signatures and challenge the GAB's ruling. The GAB then must respond to those challenges. If the board finds that there are enough signatures to trigger a recall, it will order an election to be held six Tuesdays from that date. If there is more than one candidate from a party on the ballot, that election will become a primary election and the general election will follow four weeks later. If there is not a need for a primary election, then the general election will be held six weeks after the GAB's initial order.
Although the timeline seems relatively strict, it can be extended—and Republicans have many reasons to extend it that go beyond wanting to stay in office.
Walker has a huge financial incentive for delaying the election. Due to a quirk in Wisconsin's recall laws, from the time that signatures begin to be gathered to the time when the GAB orders a recall election, Walker (or any incumbent targeted for recall) can raise unlimited sums of money from individuals or political action committees (PACs) to spend on a recall defense.
Walker (or another targeted official) can drag out the process through involved legal challenges to a GAB ruling. Republicans and Democrats challenged the GAB in court when it ordered recalls of sitting senators this summer. Those challenges didn't extend the 31-day review period, but there's no reason why Walker couldn't hold up the process in the courts.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe said the rule regarding unlimited money gives incumbents a “ridiculous advantage” and Walker a chance to make a pitch to donors that he's never made before: The sky's the limit.
“That will enable him to raise huge sums of money, much more than he will normally be able to raise,” McCabe said. “That gives him a very clear advantage. But what it leaves the public is elected officials who are that much more beholden to special interests.”
Walker and his allies can also extend their hold on power by running fake Democrats to trigger a primary, as they did during this summer's recall elections.
In addition, if Republican senators face recall elections next year, they will want to push the elections down the road so that they are conducted under the new legislative district maps, which give them clear advantages. While the GAB hasn't made a formal ruling on the matter, it appears that the new maps will kick in for the November 2012 elections.
Could the Republican-led Legislature change the rules of recalls to their advantage in the midst of this recall effort?
That, too, is an open question, said GAB spokesman Reid Magney.
“The [state] constitution gives people the right of recall,” Magney said. “But the nuts and bolts and dates and times and all of that are governed by statutes.”
Making the Case for a Recall
Wisconsin has never recalled a sitting governor. Nor had the state recalled multiple senators at once, until this summer, when two Republicans lost their seats while four Republicans and three Democrats successfully defended themselves in recall elections.
McCabe said recalls have been rare because they're so difficult to organize. Plus, they must capitalize on sustained public outrage. But he said that this year's political turmoil created the kind of conditions necessary for recalling Walker and Kleefisch.
“You have to have an inflamed public and it has to be a large segment of the public that's inflamed,” McCabe said. “That can't be sustained year after year after year. This is not going to become routine. But it's going to take a while for this to run its course because a large segment of the public is inflamed.”
That flame was lit, of course, when Walker “dropped the bomb” on the state—his union-busting collective bargaining bill—in February. That was followed by months of protests, a dubiously passed version of the bill and an even more dubious state Supreme Court decision signing off on the bill's passage.
But that was only the beginning of the story. In less than a year in power, Walker and the Republican-led Legislature have managed to inflame large sections of the state through the following actions:
- Cut a historic $1.85 billion from public education while expanding voucher schools into all of Milwaukee County and the city of Racine. Walker cut $800 million from K-12 public education, $71.6 million from the Wisconsin Technical College System, and $250 million from the University of Wisconsin System. At the same time, Walker and the Republican legislators capped the level of property taxes a local school district can levy, which further diminishes their resources by $800 million.
- Turned away $1.3 billion in federal funds that would help Wisconsin's economy and budget woes, including $800 million for high-speed rail and almost $480 million for Medicaid, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).
- Enacted a restrictive voter ID requirement that will likely disenfranchise or discourage students, minorities, low-income residents and seniors from casting a ballot next year.
The new voter ID requirement is so unfair that former Congressman David Obey called it an “impeachable offense.”
The cost to our cash-strapped state? An estimated $6 million. The reason? To clamp down on “voter fraud”—a notion circulated by Republicans that has never been proven by law enforcement. Even Walker's new lawyer, former Republican U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, failed to confirm the voter fraud idea when he investigated the allegations years ago.
- Created a wholly partisan legislative redistricting map, which will go into effect in November 2012. The new map is so partisan that the Republicans want it to go into effect before next November, so that any Republican senators up for recall next year would have the advantage of representing solidly Republican districts.
When you create a highly partisan redistricting map, you set up very safe Republican and Democratic districts, which leads to the election of extremists on both sides.
Also, instead of following precedent and using districts developed at the local level, Republicans changed the rules without warning and overrode locally created districts. As a result, many municipalities—including Milwaukee—had to tear up their new maps and spend more time and money to redraw their aldermanic districts.
- Declared the state was “broke,” but then gave away more than $200 million in tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations in the next two years, many of which are not tied to job creation goals or other measures of success. Ultimately, those tax breaks will top $2 billion over the next decade.
To add insult to injury, Walker changed the Earned Income Tax Credit, a government program championed by many non-Tea Party Republicans, which in effect raised taxes on low-income residents by $40 million.
And even though Walker made deep cuts in all sorts of state programs—including education, BadgerCare, the Stewardship Fund and aid to local governments—his budget isn't working. Last week it was revealed that state agencies would have to cut an additional $174.3 million from their budgets in the next two years. The UW System will have to cut $65.7 million on top of the $250 million funding decrease Walker has handed it.
- Created special “jobs sessions” in the state Legislature that had little to do with job creation. Earlier this year, Republicans slashed consumer protections in the name of “economic development,” reorganized the Department of Commerce so that it's less open and transparent, and gave unheard-of power to unelected political appointees.
Its current “jobs session” also has little to do with jobs. Republicans are pushing bills to weaken environmental protections so that a controversial mine can be built in northern Wisconsin, provide immunity to makers of defective health devices, and give more profits to banks and credit card companies at the expense of their customers.
Walker has also admitted that what he's doing isn't working and that he won't fulfill his pledge to create 250,000 jobs by the end of his first term.
- Trampled on the state's reputation for good government in a host of ways. Republicans passed the collective bargaining bill through a dubious legislative procedure with less than two hours of warning, seemingly in violation of the state's open meetings law. Walker also took a phone call in the governor's office from someone claiming to be right-wing extremist and billionaire contributor David Koch, in which he asked “Koch” for “message help” during the coming elections—a request that doesn't seem terribly ethical. Republicans have attacked the independence of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, potentially setting up a scenario in which Walker signs off on the rules for his own recall election. And Republicans admitted to running fake Democrats in last summer's recall elections as a way to extend their hold on power for a few more weeks in case they lost control of the state Senate.
Walker is also dogged by an ongoing John Doe criminal investigation in which some of his closest aides have been given immunity. How close is it getting to Walker? His own spokesman was granted immunity in April, a fact that Walker claims he did not know.