The Most Important Non-Presidential Election of the Decade
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is facing a recall after his labor and spending reforms. If he loses, public unions will flex their muscles nationwide.
One Sunday afternoon last spring, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was working in his front yard, a car rolled slowly by and blared its horn. He and his two teenage sons looked up to see two middle fingers directed their way as the car screeched down the street. A few minutes later another car rolled by and a voice shouted “Hey governor!” Mr. Walker reluctantly looked up—to find two thumbs up coming through the open window.
No American politician had a more polarizing effect on voters last year than Scott Walker. This time last year, thousands of irate protesters were occupying Wisconsin’s state Capitol, comparing Mr. Walker to Hitler for trying to reform the pension and collective-bargaining systems of public-employee unions. He needed an entourage of 25 security officers to escort him through the building at the height of the pandemonium.
Now he faces what he predicts will be his most bruising fight of all: a union-funded recall election intended to toss him out of office. His opponents last week submitted one million signatures to trigger a recall election as early as spring or summer. Mr. Walker expects this to be a $70 million brawl—a record for Wisconsin and twice the total spent in the 2010 governor’s race. Smiling, Mr. Walker says he hopes to be the “first governor re-elected twice during his first term.”
The stakes here “go well beyond who will be governor of Wisconsin,” Mr. Walker explains. The recall’s ultimate objective is to intimidate any official across the country who’s thinking of crossing swords with the empire of teachers and other public-employee unions. “This is about killing reform initiatives in every state in the country,” says Mr. Walker
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
In Wisconsin, the evidence is mounting that Mr. Walker hasn’t brought economic Armageddon but financial stability. Last year’s $3 billion deficit is now a $300 million surplus—and it was accomplished without the new taxes that unions favored. “If a business is failing, you don’t raise the prices on your customers,” Mr. Walker scoffs.
In addition to union reform, Mr. Walker and his allies in the legislature passed a statewide school voucher program, eased business regulation, and enacted tort reform. When Illinois raised its income taxes by 67%, he launched a PR campaign urging Illinois businesses to “escape to Wisconsin.”
When Mr. Walker took office, a survey of major business owners by the state’s Chamber of Commerce found that only 10% thought Wisconsin was heading “in the right direction.” Now 94% say it is. Chief Executive magazine found that Wisconsin’s business climate in 2011 showed the greatest one-year improvement of any state in the history of the magazine’s ratings. After bleeding 150,000 jobs in the previous three years, Wisconsin added 10,000 jobs in 2011.
All this matters little to public-employee unions looking to regain their perks. Yet granting local governments the legal authority to hire and fire teachers and other workers based on merit—as well as requiring teachers to contribute 5.8% into their pensions (up from 0%) and all public employees to pay 12.6% of their health-care premiums (about half what most private workers pay)—has already saved local governments $475 million.
Rather than assaulting government workers, these reforms avoided mass layoffs and allowed school districts to maintain and in some cases even reduce class sizes. You’d think unions would celebrate this, but no such luck.
Mr. Walker believes the union brass are most furious about his policy to stop automatically withholding union dues from the paychecks of approximately 300,000 municipal workers. He calculates that this “paycheck protection” measure saves as much as $1,400 annually for those workers who freely choose not to pay dues. That welcome pay raise for the workers has been catastrophic for the union bosses. Without the mandatory dues payments, the teachers union had to lay off 40% of its staff last year.
So now Mr. Walker, his lieutenant governor and four state senators will face the voters as early as this spring or summer. Last year a similar effort targeted four other GOP state senators and a Republican on the state supreme court. After unions spent millions on the campaign, two of the state senators were recalled but that failed to flip control of the legislature, and the supreme court justice kept his seat.
A problem for Democrats this year is finding an A-list candidate willing to run against Mr. Walker if he is recalled. A strong opponent could be Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, but the unions are furious with him too for implementing many of the Walker union reforms—saving his city $25 million and balancing its budget in the process. The likeliest candidates to challenge Mr. Walker are two liberals, former Congressman David Obey and Madison County Executive Kathleen Falk.
A new nonpartisan poll by Marquette University shows the governor at 50% job approval (with 45% disapproving), which is up from as low as 37% last summer. Even some of his most loyal followers say that he has never fully explained to Wisconsinites why ending collective bargaining for union benefits was a fiscal necessity. And local Democrats are smelling blood over a recent mini-scandal involving alleged embezzlement of public funds by two of Mr. Walker’s top aides when he was Milwaukee County Commissioner.
Still, the national unions have yet to decide whether spending another $30 million or $50 million on a recall roll of the dice is worth it given the higher priority of getting President Obama re-elected. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has been severely critical of Mr. Walker’s power play, recently acknowledged that he has fulfilled his pledge of balancing the budget without new taxes and that “the sky isn’t falling.”
If unions succeed in getting voters to evict reformers, it could “set back the conservative reform agenda across the states for a generation,” Mr. Walker warns. This might be the most important nonpresidential election in a decade.
Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for the Journal’s editorial page.