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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A State Divided

How one legislative session changed Wisconsin

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Wisconsin historically has been a purple state with very close elections. Sometimes Democrats are in charge, and sometimes Republicans are in power. Sometimes Democrats share power with Republicans. At the end of the day, deals get worked out, bargains are struck, and neighbors and friends agree to disagree but remain on good terms.

But Wisconsin has become highly polarized since the Republican sweep in November 2010, divided along ideological lines with very little discussion between those on opposing sides of any issue. That division extends from the halls of the state Capitol to family get-togethers around the state.

A Radical Agenda Pushed to the Extreme

Wisconsin's polarization is due to Republican overreaching and their leaders' refusal to negotiate with moderate members of the GOP, not to mention Democrats and independents.

When Republicans took power last year, it was clear that under the leadership of Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) they were going to act on a laundry list of conservative policies Republicans weren't able to pass during the previous decade, when they split power with the Democrats. It was no surprise that they were crafting bills to implement voter ID and concealed carry, give tax cuts to corporations, ask public employees to contribute more to their benefits packages and promote voucher schools.

Even some Democrats support parts of the Republican agenda—at least the mainstream version of that agenda.

But the resulting bills pushed by Walker and his allies didn't fit into the mainstream. In fact, they promoted issues that former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson wouldn't have touched.

Bolstered by vocal tea party groups, the pro-corporation American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the National Rifle Association (NRA), "pro-family" groups, and right-wing talk-radio coverage, Wisconsin Republicans introduced the most radical, ideologically driven versions of those long-sought Republican policies. The bills were out of step with what middle-of-the-road Wisconsin Republicans had supported in the past.

Even worse, Republicans refused to compromise with moderate GOP legislators and Democrats in both houses. It was their way or the highway. Discussion and debate were not an option.

Some of those radical bills include:

  • Gutting public employees' collective bargaining rights. Walker had a history of battling with the unions in Milwaukee County, but he had promised on the campaign trail that he would negotiate with them if he was elected governor. However, one month after taking office, Walker "dropped the bomb" on the unions by gutting their rights and requiring union members to pay more toward their benefits. When unions offered to make the financial concessions Walker sought if they could retain their bargaining rights, he and his allies refused to compromise and insisted on the entire package.
After mass protests, a prolonged absence of 14 Democratic senators, an alleged assault of a state Supreme Court justice by a fellow justice, and very ugly votes in the state Assembly and Senate, Walker got his way. And, for good measure, Walker made annual union recertification nearly impossible, too, penalizing his political opponents far into the future. 
  • Making historic cuts to public education at all levels. Not only did Republicans cut $800 million from K-12 public education, but they also capped the amount of tax levy a school district could raise so local districts couldn't make up the cut in state aid with local taxes. Republicans also cut a third of technical college funding at the same time job training is essential to Wisconsin's economic growth. They forced the University of Wisconsin System to undergo two rounds of funding cuts, which resulted in higher tuition, and then didn't provide more money for financial aid for students.
  • Under-funding Medicaid programs by more than $140 million. Although Wisconsin had been expanding the highly popular BadgerCare and other Medicaid programs in recent years, Walker and legislative Republicans decided to reverse course and cut state support for them. Even worse, they took Medicaid decision-making power out of the hands of the Legislature and handed it to state Health Secretary Dennis Smith, an unelected gubernatorial appointee. Smith now has unprecedented, broad power to make the $140 million in cuts and, potentially, kick 20,000 people off of BadgerCare and limit the program's coverage.
  • Expanding the school voucher program beyond Milwaukee's borders and to middle-class families. Walker has transformed a program originally touted as a way to help Milwaukee's neediest students into a state subsidy of middle-class students who attend private schools. And while Walker said he wanted voucher schools to make their test scores public, the resulting education "reform" legislation included no such accountability measures. The program has been expanded to Racine, as well.
  • Enacting a permissive concealed carry law. Previously, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn had proposed a concealed carry law that included strict state oversight and made carrying a concealed weapon without a permit a felony.

But Wisconsin is now saddled with an incredibly lax concealed carry law and carrying without a permit is still a misdemeanor. Weapons are allowed in areas that other states ban, such as hospitals and day care centers, and requirements for a permit are loose. The four-hour training requirement drafted by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen was shot down by Walker and his fellow radical Republicans as being too onerous for gun owners.

  • Refusing to implement federal health care reform. Walker had set up his Office of Free Market Health Care to implement and oversee the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). But that was soon seen as being too sympathetic to the Obama administration.

Walker allowed Wisconsin to join a lawsuit fighting the ACA and the Legislature failed to pass a bill that codified parts of the ACA in Wisconsin law, even though the bill was incredibly friendly to private insurers and barely protected consumers. Most recently, amid campaign fund-raising stops around the country, Walker shuttered his own "free market" office and announced that Wisconsin would be one of a handful of states that would not set up an insurance exchange for small businesses and consumers, as required by the ACA.

  • Passing the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation. Republicans couldn't wait to finally pass a voter ID law in the guise of eliminating widespread voter fraud (which really didn't exist, by the way). But instead of passing a law that complies with the Wisconsin Constitution and doesn't disenfranchise low-income, student, elderly and minority voters, Republicans passed the most restrictive ID law in the nation.

Going even further than Indiana's voter ID law, for example, Wisconsin's law deems just a few forms of identification as being acceptable for voting, and it does not allow potential voters to sign an affidavit if they do not have an acceptable ID, which Indiana voters can do. In Wisconsin, if you don't have an ID, you can't vote, period. No wonder why two judges have imposed injunctions on the law, claiming it's unconstitutional.

Can the Damage Be Undone?

Although the polarized, bitter atmosphere remains, there are signs that the radical Walker-Fitzgerald agenda is being beaten back.

For the first seven months of the year, Republicans had no check on their power. They held healthy majorities in both houses of the state Legislature and had a friendly conservative majority on the state Supreme Court.

After last summer's recalls, however, Republicans only had a slim 17-16 majority in the state Senate. That meant that one dissenting Republican senator could stall, change or kill bills that would have sailed through the Legislature in the first half of the year.

The death of the open-pit mining bill—which was opposed by Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) because, in part, it cut the public out of the mining permit-granting process—is one casualty of this more moderate Senate. Schultz and state Sen. Robert Jauch (D-Poplar), who worked together on a bipartisan mining bill, have now been targeted for recall by the right-wing Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), Walker's old "grassroots" friends from his Milwaukee County days.

That said, it's going to take a lot of effort to undo the damage created in this past legislative session, which ended last week.

Some of the most contentious Republican-backed legislation is being vetted through the courts. Already, two judges have imposed injunctions on the new voter ID law, but Van Hollen is appealing those decisions. The Republican-friendly legislative redistricting map is awaiting a federal court decision. That map could be thrown out in its entirety or redrawn in parts if the three-judge panel decides that it unfairly disenfranchises voters.

Even if Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch lose their recalls this summer—assuming the recalls will go forward—and even if Democrats take over the state Senate in recall elections—which, thanks to last week's resignation of state Sen. Pam Galloway (R-Wausau), is now evenly split 16-16 between Republicans and Democrats—Republicans will still hold the Assembly until the November elections.

Republicans could easily win back both houses this fall, thanks to their gerrymandered legislative redistricting map. A Democratic governor could veto offensive bills, but he or she could not roll back some of the worst laws already passed with the stroke of a pen.

And if Walker does survive the recall—and isn't brought down by the John Doe investigation—expect his vision for Wisconsin to be even more radical in the rest of his term.