Walker Begins Next Phase of Growth Agenda
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After a year spent fighting for his political life, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is ready to get back to normal. For the 44-year-old trailblazing governor from Wisconsin, that means finding time to go for a ride on his Harley—something he hadn’t been able to do in the months leading up to his June 6 recall election.
In an exclusive interview with Free Enterprise a week after his election victory, Walker says, “After doing Face the Nation, I put on my jeans and rode my Harley. The only place you can really be normal is on a Harley with a full-face helmet.” Walker gave his interview while in Washington, D.C., with other governors to participate in the U.S. Chamber’s June 13 Jobs Summit.
Sounding a Wake-Up Call for Unions
Walker is the first U.S. governor in history to survive a recall election, beating back a labor-backed effort to unseat him and again handing defeat to his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Faced with a $3.6 billion deficit when he took office in 2010, state lawmakers passed, and Walker signed, legislation limiting collective bargaining to base wages and requiring most public sector workers to pay more of their health insurance and pension costs. Those reforms gave local governments and school districts the tools they needed to balance their budgets without raising taxes or laying off teachers.
However, Walker paid the price for his efforts. There were massive protests at the Wisconsin Statehouse, and Wisconsin Senate Democrats even temporarily fled the state to keep his plan from being passed.
Walker’s win is seen by many as a blow to union organizers, and the governor doesn’t go out of his way to disagree. “Well, I think it’s a good wake-up call for unions. Private sector unions, at least in our state, have actually been pretty good partners on economic development. They get it. They didn’t have this kind of predestined belief that nothing could touch them, whereas public sector unions, I think, thought nobody could ever check what they were doing,” notes Walker.
Walker says he learned a valuable lesson from his recall experience. “If I had to do it over again, I would have spent more time early last year more clearly defining the problem. My problem was that I was so eager to fix it that I didn’t talk about it because most politicians talk about it but never fix it,” he says. “I tell other governors that if you’re going to pursue something, just make sure you have a clear plan to communicate to your people not only what you’re going to do but why you need to.”
He has no regrets, however, about the reforms themselves, which by any measure have been a resounding success. With new latitude to renegotiate contracts, local school districts and governments have saved Wisconsin taxpayers $1 billion, according to the governor’s office. And the state has gone from a budget deficit of $1.8 billion to a surplus of $275 million.
Moving Wisconsin Forward
To rebuild bridges scorched by 17 months of political warfare, Walker invited Wisconsin’s 132 state legislators, their spouses, and legislative aides to a “brat and beer summit” at his house featuring locally made beers, bratwursts, and Secret Stadium Sauce, of course. “One of the biggest things missing in the last year and a half has been a sense of collegiality,” he says. “We can show the state we can work together.”
It’s the first step on a road that Walker hopes will lead to policies designed to create more jobs and a business-friendly environment. “My goal is that any of the things we might pursue would be things that all four caucuses, both the Assembly and the Senate, Democrat and Republican, can have broad-based agreement on.” He continues, “And I think things that help small businesses grow, things that help get more people connected to the skills they need for jobs today, those are the sorts of issues that we can make some inroads on and get things done.”
Not that Wisconsin hasn’t made progress in those areas under Walker’s leadership. Under the Wisconsin Wins pilot program, businesses work with the state to offer on-the-job occupational training to individuals receiving unemployment benefits. Businesses are connected directly to unemployed workers, cutting down on the cost of initial placement.
Wisconsin has also expanded its loan support programs for small and growing businesses and implemented regulatory reforms, including requiring state agencies to submit proposed rules to a cost-benefit analysis and giving the governor additional authority to stop proposed new rules.
Walker gave a hint that further regulatory reform might be next on his agenda when he praised fellow Jobs Summit attendee Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), who recently eliminated 368 outdated business regulations. “Utah had more than 1,100 rules and regulations that were out of date, that were just big barriers to business, particularly small businesses, and repealed over 300 of them,” Walker explains. “Those are things we could be doing because I hear that all the time from employers. Looking at what [Herbert] and other governors have done to get those regulations back to common sense, I think it’s something we’d like to do in Wisconsin.”